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2017-2018 Exhibition: Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

By Sara Logue

Since its founding, Princeton University has been shaped by every major war, whether it took place on American soil or halfway around the world. Most colleges and universities in the United States have had to address their role during wartime. Traditional college students are at the prime age of enlistment, and when war loomed, academic institutions looked for the best ways to continue to educate students while also preparing them for combat. Starting as early as the French and Indian War and continuing through the American involvement in Vietnam, the Princeton community has borne the demands of conflict. Through the Princeton University Archives and the collections of the Public Policy Papers, this exhibition reviews how education and the pursuit of knowledge evolved over the span of 200 years through the lens of a series of wars.

Adjustments were made at Princeton during each period of US involvement in war. The administration worked to keep the college afloat during lean times and answered the government’s calls for wartime assistance. Faculty contributed to military training and defense research, while student involvement came in the form of mobilization as well as protest. Enrollment fluctuated as students became soldiers, and the curriculum evolved to accommodate the need to produce men with military training.

During the American Revolution, war came to the campus, as Nassau Hall, which housed students, faculty and classrooms, was alternately occupied by both British and American troops and was a key site for the Battle of Princeton. The college grew over the next century to include a large number of southern students, at times reaching nearly 60% of total enrollment. However, with the onset of the Civil War, practically all southern students returned home to fight against those who recently had been their classmates and friends. Mobilization came to the college unofficially with the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century and officially with the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917. During World War II, Princeton came to the forefront of science and defense research with its contributions to the development of the atomic bomb.


Grass-roots book programs were created as a way to collect and donate reading material to soldiers, and had long been part of war efforts, dating back to the Civil War. Begun as a way to boost morale, and not limited to college students, book programs gave soldiers tools to educate themselves while at war. Princeton’s own program during World War II, Seventy Books for Students in the Armed Forces, was an opportunity for soldiers to acquire three books from a list of seventy. They included titles in the list that were “good reading for any man” and published compact and inexpensive editions. The Council on Books in Wartime, founded in 1942 and operating through the remainder of World War II, was a national organization which formalized the creation and distribution of similar reading material to send to soldiers stationed throughout the world.

World War II and its aftermath brought many changes to the Princeton campus. The GI Bill led to an expansion in enrollment as well as a change in the “typical” Princeton student. A bit older, these men brought wives and children to campus, which the University struggled to accommodate. By the early 1950s, Princeton had more or less returned to its pre-war state, with single, young men populating the campus.

However, student life changed with the culture of the 1960s, and as more minorities and women were admitted. At the same time the United States escalated the Vietnam conflict. Student reaction to this war was mixed, with more circumspection and less sense of moral obligation to the cause than with previous conflicts. Protests erupted on college campuses across the country, and it was no different here at Princeton. The administration opened the campus to public discourse and the faculty convened a Council on Vietnam. Whether in support or opposition, the centuries-long tradition of Princeton’s active involvement in the United States’ wartime activities continued.

Archives usually gather material decades after they are created, so this exhibition ends in the early 1970s. However, Princeton’s students, faculty and administration have continued to be involved in war through the present day. We hope that you will return to explore our collections to further your own knowledge of our nation’s complicated history of education in times of war.

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