The residence hall in the United States has come to mark the threshold between childhood and adulthood, housing young people during a transformational time in their lives. When parents drop their kids off at college, do they pose in front of a classroom building or the library? Maybe. But it’s the unloading of clothes, computers, and comforters at the dorms that defines the break between childhood and adulthood.
This rite of passage is taken much more seriously by Americans than by people in other countries. In the United States, largely because of Americans’ romantic attitude toward the universities of Oxford and Cambridge—where young men once lived and studied together and forged lasting identities based on shared housing—students living together in one building has come to be seen as an essential part of the college experience. Students spend just 12 or 15 hours per week in class, plus a few hours of study; the rest of the time they are socializing, working out, gaming, managing clubs, politicking, making music, and relaxing with friends. In short, they are forging connections that will last a lifetime and establishing a network that will benefit their careers.
But living on campus—and the social benefit Americans place on it today—was never inevitable. American universities haven’t always intended for dorms to bring people together; campus housing was also organized, for many years, to keep groups of students apart. In fact, the very first purpose-built residence for college students in America was the Indian College at Harvard University, constructed by a British religious society in the mid-17th century to house Native American students and keep them separate from white boys.
And while today’s residence life experts tout diversity as the key reason for residing with fellow students, from the 17th century to the early 20th century, anti-diversity was the norm. Dormitories introduced young men to other men like themselves, and anchored young women in the domestic sphere they were expected to inhabit later on—and architects and university leaders came up with physical designs that furthered these social goals.