Housing Lunatics and Students: Nineteenth-Century Asylums and Dormitories
Abstract

Abstract:

Environmental determinism—the idea that the environment, including architecture, can shape behavior—linked asylums and dormitories. In both cases, the architecture of carefully planned structures reformed the body and reeducated the mind. When offering therapies for mental illness, nineteenth-century psychiatrists claimed that the purpose-built asylum would not only change a patient’s conduct, but also cure his or her mental disease. In the case of higher education, college officials (relying on the model of Oxford and Cambridge) encouraged students to live on campus in dormitories, in order to build life-changing friendships and strengthen their moral fiber. The dormitories themselves made such personal development possible—living at home or in a boarding house offered no such advantages. In contrast with their Victorian forbears, present-day psychiatrists do not make sanguine, optimistic predictions about the ability of an asylum to cure mental illness, but today’s residence life experts depend on an unacknowledged faith in environmental determinism. Reasons to live in a residence hall in 2015 include: “to experience personal growth with opportunities to gain independence and display leadership,” and “to learn principles of civility among roommates and neighbors.”