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Lowell on Dormitories and Collegiate Life

We are come to the parting of the ways, where we must either make up our minds that the social life of the students is none of our affair,—and in that case we had probably better give up the college as an institution altogether, and confine ourselves to the work of the schools which prepare men for practical life; or we must bring our men together into a real community, with a common life,—a true college life.

—A. Lawrence Lowell

The creation of a system of residential colleges at Harvard University by Abbott Lawrence Lowell in the 1930s was the culmination of a long chain of discussion and debate about Harvard administrative organization reaching back into the Nineteenth Century. Among the important documents from this early period were the 1894 essay by Frank Bolles on dividing Harvard College, and this 1904 essay by Lowell, “Dormitories and College Life.” What follows is a complete transcription of “Dormitories and College Life,” first published in the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, June 1904, pages 523–528. My editorial insertions are enclosed in {braces}.

Dormitories and College Life.

In this country we appear to have solved the problem of professional education. In the law schools, medical schools, and schools of engineering, the eagerness, the intellectual tone, and the training leave little to be desired, while the practitioners turned out are excellent. But with the academic departments, although the oldest parts of our universities, one cannot feel the same contentment. The old American college, with its small, compact, and {page 524} rigidly organized community, and its fixed curriculum, has disappeared from all our larger institutions. The growth in numbers, on the one hand, and the introduction of the elective system, on the other, have destroyed the old; and the new does not seem to have yet taken on its final form. The purely elective system has not won its way everywhere; and there is no common opinion among American colleges upon the scheme of education to be pursued. It is not, however, about the course of study that I wish to speak, but about the social life and the intellectual tone of the college.

Men come to college from very different surroundings, and in very different circumstances. Some, who are poor, look upon the college chiefly as a step towards a future livelihood. This is especially true of those who intend to be teachers. Such men work hard, and in fact they often cannot remain unless they win scholarships. But they sometimes fail to get a full measure of what is quite as important as study, that is the benefit of social intercourse with their comrades. Among the rich men, on the other hand, many come who have no very serious intentions of any kind. Their life is, in the main, harmless, but somewhat frivolous, decidedly indolent, and wholly aimless. Apart from the negative righteousness of abstaining from evil, far too many students feel no great responsibility in college. They think that, however idle they may be there, they will work hard, and make their mark, after graduation; and this feeling is encouraged by the community at large, which is constantly in the habit of repeating that the serious worker in college is apt to amount to nothing afterwards, and that the man who is bad at examinations is likely to be good at making money. There seems to be an impression not only among the students, but in the world outside, that habits of indolence and of mental laxity, the passing of one’s time in the society of a small clique of friends, all of the same type, is a good preparation for an industrious, energetic, and useful life. In no case is this mistake of more serious consequence than in the that of the man who may be destined to control large interests in great industrial enterprises. It is important that the future railroad or bank president should spend the most impressionable years of his life in forming habits of close and accurate thought, in widening his intellectual scope, and in becoming intimate with strong men of the most different kinds. {page 525}

To turn to the intellectual side of the life; it is certainly true, whatever the reason may be, that at present we fail to touch the imagination of the students. We awake little spontaneous enthusiasm for knowledge or thought. We arouse little ambition for intellectual power. The elective system, with its liberty for each man to pursue the subject in which he is most interested, was expected to cure that evil; but the elective system, while in some form a necessity, is not a panacea. By encouraging every man to follow his own bent it has, in fact, isolated him; and while promoting individuality, it has broken down the common scholastic bond among the higher students which furnished a strong incentive to excel.

It is far too common for the students to feel that college is an interlude in real life; that the boy’s life ends when he goes there and the man’s life does not begin until he leaves. This is a very unfortunate attitude. College life is real, and all the aspects of it—the social side as well as the intellectual—are worth taking seriously. It comes at a time when character and habits are easily formed, when the capacity for enjoyment is great, and when the mind and soul take quick and lasting impressions from surroundings, from friends, and from the man’s own aspirations. College ought to be the golden opportunity for forming lifelong friendships; for healthy intercourse with other men in an atmosphere free from the trammels of the bread-winning world. It ought to be the opportunity, also, for acquiring intellectual tastes, and the craving for clear and profound thought. If properly used it is the chance to make men and citizens; to give not only to those who are going into the learned professions, but to those who are going into business, and life of all kinds, a broad and deep foundation, and a wide horizon. It is also the chance to recruit scholars who are to give light to future generations.

I shall, of course, be told that this last is the affair of the Graduate School. But graduate schools are becoming everywhere more and more professional schools; schools for teachers rather than nurseries for scholars. Moreover, no one goes into a graduate school in order to acquire a love of learning. He may go there to prepare for a career as a university professor, but he never goes for the love of learning unless he has the love of learning before he goes; and it is in the college that he must get that {page 526} love of learning. One of the defects of the college to-day is that it turns out so few men who think for the sake of thinking, without looking upon their thinking as a means of earning bread. The question of a university’s producing great thinkers is not so much a question of training as of recruiting; and the colleges must remain for us the prime recruiting ground.

If the college does not succeed in doing all that it might, if it does not succeed in turning out enough great scholars, if it does not succeed in making more of the men enjoy hard thinking, and respect scholarship, the fault is largely our own. Perhaps our methods are defective. Perhaps something may be attributed to the very habit, which has come over the whole educational world, of making the acquisition of knowledge easy, of teaching too much and studying too little. From the kindergarten to the college we pour knowledge into the mind so prepared as to avoid the effort of mental digestion, and strive to make our educational institutions automatic brain-fattening machines.

If we do not altogether succeed in making college what it should be, there is surely another cause: and that is the defective community life. The real training of students comes from one another as well as from the instructors; but with the growth in numbers class feeling has become a very much weaker thing than it was thirty years ago; and the general sense of solidarity among large groups of students has declined. The old bonds are passing away; and yet it would seem to be clear that in our country a college education without a community life cannot permanently succeed. To expect that a large number of young men, from eighteen to twenty-two years of age, without a common life or common aspirations, without the incentive of rivalry, or the advantage of healthy intercourse with one another, will get any great benefit from simply pursuing courses of study of which they can foresee no immediate application, is to expect a great deal of the American youth. To get the real benefit of college education men must live the life of a college.

The exaggerated interest in athletic sports at the present day would seem to be due in part to the fact that such contests afford almost the only means of expressing the community feeling. They provide a field for generous emulation, where a man is conscious, while striving for superiority, that he is, at the same time, work-{page 527}ing for the honor of his college. There is no obvious reason why young men should take greater pleasure in the exercise of their physical than of their mental powers; but in comparing athletics—which have been directed in the main by the students—with scholarship,—which has been directed in the main by the authorities,—it is undeniable that whatever defects athletics may have, they have aroused an amount of enthusiasm, and we may add a sense of duty, which in the case of scholarship the authorities have quite failed to match. This contrast is certainly due, in part at least, to the fact that the authorities have worked upon the basis of the individual, and the students upon that of the community.

No college can do what it ought to, can stimulate intellectual enthusiasm, or the love of hard mental exercise, or true fellowship, unless every man stands on his own merits, and finds his own social level on his own mental and moral force. A college, in other words, to be successful must be a democracy; and a democracy cannot continue to exist if rich men live apart by themselves in expensive private dormitories, and the poorer men by themselves in other places, as is becoming more and more the case in Harvard at the present day. The Harvard Union has, no doubt, done a great deal; but the Union alone cannot solve the problem. We are come to the parting of the ways, where we must either make up our minds that the social life of the students is none of our affair,—and in that case we had probably better give up the college as an institution altogether, and confine ourselves to the work of the schools which prepare men for practical life; or we must bring our men together into a real community, with a common life,—a true college life. This can never be done by outside dormitories built by private enterprise, because their effect is of necessity a segregation into distinct social groups based largely on wealth. It can be done only by means of modern college dormitories, large enough to house the great bulk of the students within the College walls. Such a plan would benefit not any one class alone, but all the undergraduates. Many of the men who come to us need a larger social life. Others need not only this, but also more intellectual stimulus; and all of them need to be shuffled together. This question is a large one, but it is one that we must face.

Some may object that there is no room in the College Yard {page 528} to house any large number of students in addition to those who can be accommodated in the present dormitories. But this is, by no means, the case, if we take a broad enough view of the Yard. Suppose, for example, a new dormitory were constructed along Quincy Street and Massachusetts Avenue, beginning near the spot where the Emerson Hall is to stand and ending near the ’77 Gate. Such a building would house several hundred students, and without being luxurious it would be attractive to men who now live in the expensive private dormitories, while it could have rooms at a lower rent for those who could afford less. It would be near enough to the older buildings in the Yard—such as Holworthy and its neighbors—to add to the interest in them, while its position on Quincy Street would increase the attendance at the Union.

It will be said that the College has always failed to some extent in the ways I have pointed out. But, in the first place, the fact that an evil has always existed is no reason why it should not be remedied if it is capable of remedy; and, in the second place, these evils have tended to grow with the great increase in the size of the College.

I shall be told that I am struggling against the spirit of the age, which is materialistic and plutocratic. But while it is true that every institution—and a university no less than any other—must recognize and adapt itself to the spirit of the times, it is also true that the very object of a university is to keep before men’s minds those things that lie beyond the spirit of the age, the deeper things whose value is eternal.

A. Lawrence Lowell, ’77

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016