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So far as I can determine, the most lucid history of college dormitories ever published appeared in December 1934 and January 1935 in a now-defunct journal sponsored by a now-defunct learned society.
Flatly titled “The History of Student Residential Housing I and II,” the essays, comprising some 12,000 words, were the work of Ohio State psychology professor William Harold Cowley (1899–1978), who later held an endowed chair in education at Stanford and gained a reputation for, among other things, writing books over and over and never publishing any version. (Two of his three important monographs were published posthumously, with editors assuming co-authorship.)
Hal to his friends, W.H. Cowley to his readers, and (at his insistence) Mr. Cowley to his students at Stanford, Cowley was a working-class kid from Brooklyn who, like his childhood idol Horatio Alger, compelled his own way in the world, earning the money and scholarships that brought him first to Dartmouth and then the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in psychology and became one of those tireless—he had a lifetime habit of working all day and writing through the night—intellectual adventurers who bumps into a new discipline and carries it home before anyone else gets wind of the discovery.
In Cowley’s case, it was higher education studies, where his specialty became “student personnel,” which we now call student affairs, and which he pretty much invented and ruled. While at Stanford he trained 70 or so doctoral students who would become the second and third generation of faculty who taught higher education studies—more than a dozen of them also rising to college and university presidencies.
And while it became a source of frustration to Cowley (and his many admirers) that he was never able to give up on or nail down the “taxonomy” of college education that was his Holy Grail, he produced and collected over his working life enough memos, articles, variant manuscripts, speeches, letters, instruction manuals, and research materials to leave Stanford a bequest of 200 linear feet of archival material.
Cowley’s story of college dormitories begins in the 12th century and carries into the 20th. Over that time, he makes clear, only in rare circumstances—e.g., Oxford, Cambridge, and their New England imitators; American women’s colleges; and such freethinking outliers as Chicago—did colleges and universities do anything but shun responsibility for their students’ lived lives.
And when some did take an interest, it was generally under political or economic pressure, as in 15th- and 16th-century Europe, when the good burghers of such college towns as Paris and Bologna—who had enriched themselves for centuries by tending to student appetites—declared they could no longer put up with what armies of unsupervised young men did in the nighttime streets and alleyways.
But the institutionally managed dormitories that were established in old Europe really suited nobody. Faculty (there were no “student personnel”) despised their forced role as sheriffs, and students found their way around their busy overseers. Came the Reformation and French Revolution, and European universities sensibly took advantage of distraction to do away with dormitories. Only at Oxford and Cambridge, relatively untouched by these cataclysms, did the dormitory system stick, which is how it came to travel to Massachusetts Hall, in Harvard Yard, in 1718.
According to Cowley, save for the instances noted above, dormitories did not root well in the United States. For one, they were usually built on the cheap—Massachusetts Hall had no piped water or any light source but for whale oil lamps until the 1860s—and students found more salubrious accommodations in boarding, private, and shared houses. Fraternities and sororities, founded for social reasons, easily turned to providing room and board. Moreover, many American universities, particularly in the Midwest and West, preferred to work on the German, not British, model, which favored investments in faculty, laboratories, and libraries. At Michigan, in 1852, there was no objection from students when a president without warning turned the college’s only dormitory into a classroom building, noting that young men who were separated “from the influences of domestic circles are . . . led to contract evil habits.”
That comprehension began to change following the turn of the 20th century, most importantly because of a new understanding—later strongly advanced by Cowley and today a truism—that students are educated outside the classroom as well as within. Also driving the rise of residency was a new social concept called “college life,” which had to do with football, school colors, cheers, and close friendships. At some institutions with no history of residency (e.g., Columbia), alumni joined students in demanding dormitories and a real college atmosphere. So says Mr. Cowley, and I believe him, even without evidence of a taxonomy.
Our story on the new Thomas More Apartments begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum