For the past three summers I have had the privilege of spending a week on the campus of Princeton University with a group of history teachers. We call ourselves “The Princeton Seminar,” but it would be more accurate to identify our group as the Gilder-Lehrman Institute Summer Seminar on the “13 Colonies.”
Last week thirty-five teachers from around the country converged on Princeton to study the British mainland colonies. Our Gilder-Lehrman-appointed leader is the indispensable Nate McAlister, the 2010 National History Teacher of the Year. I spend about four hours a day with the teachers. Nate does everything else, from getting them settled in their dorm rooms to helping them prepare their required lessons plans and teaching them historical thinking skills.
In addition to our lectures, discussions, and Gilder-Lehrman historical thinking sessions, we take a day-long tour of colonial Philadelphia and an evening tour of early American Princeton. We read Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, George Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia (to prepare them for their tour of Philadelphia), and my own The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.
The Fithian book is particularly relevant to the week at Princeton. As many of you know, Fithian was a 1772 graduate of the College of New Jersey and my book situates his life in the history of the college. It is fun watching teachers see Nassau Hall after reading about it in the book. One teacher was so excited about Fithian that she spent some of her free time in the Firestone Library looking at some of his papers and letters.
We also spend a couple of hours in the Firestone rare book room. I have the curators pull out some seventeenth and eighteenth-century classics by Penn, Locke, Mather, Wheatley, Richardson, Sterne, Whitefield, Edwards, and Franklin along with many of the more obscure books Fithian read while he was a student at the college in the 1770s and a tutor on the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter III.
We also spend a couple of hours in the cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church. I usually give the teachers a short lecture at the gravestones of Aaron Burr Sr., Aaron Burr Jr,, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon. The teachers also love seeing the burial place of Grover Cleveland and his daughter “Baby Ruth.”
And then there are the informal times of conversations–perhaps the highlight of the week. These take place in the dining hall (on some nights we tend to linger over mugs of of coffee until they kick us out), on walks through campus, and at the famous Yankee Doodle Tap Room in downtown Princeton. I learn a lot from these informal conversations and always gain a greater appreciation for the front-line work that these teachers do. It is heroic work. It is good work. It is dignified work. And, unfortunately, it is sometimes thankless work. Let’s not forget that these teachers, and history teachers like them, are in the business of preparing the next generation of democratic citizens.
One of the participants in this summer’s Princeton Seminar is known online as the “Caffeinated Teacher.” She has written a nice blog post on her experience. Here is a taste: