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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Bowles Hall and the Collegiate Way of Living

— It’s been my pleasure over the past year to do a bit of work with a remarkable group of alumni from the University of California at Berkeley who are hoping to establish a residential college in the dormitory that they lived in when they were students, a building called Bowles Hall.

Or perhaps I should say re-establish a residential college, because that’s what Bowles Hall originally was.

The residential college revival that we are in the midst of today was not the first revival of the collegiate way of living in the United States. The first revival took place in the early decades of the twentieth century, and Bowles Hall at Berkeley, along with the Harvard University houses and the Yale University colleges, was part of that revival.

[Bowles Hall, UC Berkeley]

Hogwarts by the Bay: Bowles Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, designed by George Kelham and completed in 1928. Photo by RJO. You can never go wrong by including a tower in a residential college. (Crenellated battlements!)

“One of the problems of such an institution as the University of California,” wrote Berkeley’s president, Robert Gordon Sproul, in 1930, “is so to subdivide its student body that the advantages of the small group may be retained without sacrificing the even greater advantages of membership in a large university. Bowles Hall helps to do that, for it is a center where students live and work together, where contacts may be made with professors and officers of the University, where many of unlike minds may break bread and learn from each other the joys of fellowship.” You won’t find a better description of a residential college than that.

Bowles Hall has a library, a beautiful common room, a semi-enclosed front lawn, and, very importantly, it has—or rather had, since the university has now shut it down—its own kitchen and dining hall. Nearly every element of a classic residential college was incorporated into Bowles Hall from the beginning.

[The Bowles Hall Common Room]

The Bowles Hall common room at the University of California. Photo by RJO.

In recent years, however, the big University of California has not been a very good steward of little Bowles Hall. Much could be said about this, and about the exemplary efforts of the Bowles Hall Alumni Association—founded by the alumni themselves, with no assistance from the university—to restore both the building and the residential college experience they knew as undergraduates.

But rather than comment at length on current affairs, I’ll instead offer the brief essay I was asked to write for the latest Bowles Hall alumni newsletter, which has just gone out to the association’s membership. It tries to place Bowles Hall the building, and Bowles Hall the beloved society, into historical context, and thereby to lend encouragement to the dedicated and determined people who are trying to bring the collegiate way of living back to one of America’s great public universities.

Bowles Hall and the Collegiate Way of Living

Historians often distinguish between two broad models of higher education: the British model and the Germanic or Continental model.

The British model of higher education is the “collegiate” model, tracing its roots to Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain. Oxford and Cambridge are federal institutions: collections of small, independent, residential colleges, each made up of a few hundred members from all academic divisions and departments. The university awards degrees while the colleges function as “great households” that support the life and well-being of the students.

The Germanic model, by contrast, is the research-university model. It traces its origin to the University of Berlin in the early 1800s, the first modern institution to emphasize advanced study, original scholarship, and professional publication. The welfare of students in the Germanic university, especially undergraduate students, was subordinated to the research enterprise.

The Early American Tradition

Higher education in early America was rooted firmly in the British collegiate tradition. The important educational institutions of the American colonies were not Continental universities, but British-style colleges: Harvard College, Yale College, the College of New Jersey (Princeton), the College of Rhode Island (Brown), and their early allies. It was from these institutions and this tradition that the many independent liberal arts colleges across the United States arose. When the Reverend Henry Durant, a graduate of Yale College, arrived in San Francisco in 1853 to spread the cause of learning, he intended to establish not a university, but a college: the College of California.

The Germanic Shift

But Durant had gone west just as a great wave of Germanification began to wash over American higher education. In the mid-1800s ambitious young Americans travelled to the Continent for advanced study, just as ambitious young people around the world today travel to the United States. Those young Americans brought back with them a new understanding of university organization, and as they came of age through the nineteenth century they put that understanding into practice. The University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, the Johns Hopkins University, and the University of California—not to mention Harvard University and Yale University, among many others—were the result.

A Modest Return

By 1900, however, perceptive leaders at some of these young Germanic universities began to realize that there had been virtues in the life of the old colleges that were now in danger of being lost. It became clear to a number of people—among them Frank Bolles and Abbott Lawrence Lowell at Harvard, and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton—that what was needed was a recreation, within the growing research universities, of the old British collegiate system. Bolles proposed this at Harvard in 1894 and Lowell finally put such a “House Plan” into place there in the 1930s, with Yale following soon after. Wilson proposed it at Princeton in 1906, but political opposition from the existing private clubs prevented its implementation.

The Bowles Hall Experience
[Bowles Hall at Berkeley]

An Oxford college of the nineteenth century? No, Bowles Hall at Berkeley, built in 1928.

Bowles Hall at the University of California was a product of this early twentieth-century residential college revival. “One of the problems of such an institution as the University of California,” observed Robert Gordon Sproul in 1930, “is so to subdivide its student body that the advantages of the small group may be retained without sacrificing the even greater advantages of membership in a large university. Bowles Hall helps to do that, for it is a center where students live and work together, where contacts may be made with professors and officers of the University, where many of unlike minds may break bread and learn from each other the joys of fellowship.” The British model of higher education couldn’t be expressed any better than that.

This revival was short-lived, however, and the tide of the twentieth century wasn’t broadly favorable to the decentralized, collegiate arrangement, nor to the creation of more places like Bowles Hall. The Second World War placed enormous research demands on American universities, and the G.I. Bill and the baby boom encouraged universities to emphasize the quantity rather than the quality of student life. Bureaucracy flourished and education became an industry, with customers, products, and pipelines instead of students and faculty. “The joys of fellowship” disappeared in the massive mid-century multiversity.

[Bowles Hall Library at the University of California at Berkeley]

The Hart Library at Bowles Hall, complete with fireplace. A residential college without a library is no college at all.

A Second Revival

But tides have a way of turning, and in the last decade or so, across the United States and around the world, the residential college model of university organization has been undergoing a second revival. On campuses public and private, large and small, the virtues of what Cotton Mather called the “collegiate way of living” are once again being discovered, and my own website, “The Collegiate Way” (collegiateway.org), has become the international clearinghouse for this movement. From Murray State in Kentucky to Truman State in Missouri, from Baylor in Texas to Vanderbilt in Tennessee, from Ole Miss down south to Cornell up north, students, faculty, alumni, and staff are again coming to see, as the founders of Bowles Hall did, that “the advantages of the small group may be retained without sacrificing the even greater advantages of membership in a large university.” Even Princeton University, which rejected Woodrow Wilson’s collegiate plan a century ago, is now moving forward with a comprehensive residential college system for all its undergraduates.

Just as Bowles Hall was established during the first American revival of the collegiate way of living, those of you working today to restore Bowles Hall are part of the second collegiate revival, and you can draw strength from that fact. Many others around the world are trying to cultivate “education through fellowship” just as you are, in places very much like Bowles Hall. If you learn from them and they learn from you, the cause of learning and fellowship will advance for all.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014