Why American universities are in thrall to the Oxbridge quad

Courtyard of Adams Hall Wisconsin, photo by Carla Yanni

Some questionable motivations lie behind the design staple, says the author of a new book on the subject

After the college admissions scandal in the US earlier this year, many Britons were left scratching their heads. Who would pay half a million dollars just to secure a place for a child at the University of Southern California? Sure, USC comes in at a respectable 22nd in one national ranking of American universities, but one of the prospective undergraduates had already posted a video on her YouTube channel in which she explained: “I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” She is going to university for the parties, not for the academics. Such an attitude is not new.

One of the key themes of my book, Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) is that since the 1600s Americans have imagined the collegiate experience as an opportunity to socialise. It’s not that academics are unimportant, but they are not always the main event. In 1741, Ben Franklin hinted that a good reason to attend college was to make a good marriage, which was especially necessary because the colonies did not have the long-standing social registers that were built into the British class system.

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