Get ready to scroll down and learn about how the University arose and the role the residence halls played in its development.
We are talking about the 14th century!
An exciting story, written by Nicanor Gómez Villegas, PhD in Ancient History and director of Colegio Mayor Isabel de España, in Madrid.
A group of young university students decide to live in community and learn together, guided and tutored by their more experienced peers and even by an adult they have decided to accept into their ranks. In that community they learn about the important things in life, begin to appreciate culture and art, and prepare themselves, essentially, for the life that awaits them outside the walls of that little universe
In some cases this formative stage lasts for many years and naturally creates an indelible mark and a sense of belonging that the university, the church or even the nation of which they are a part do not arouse.
Bright Young people
regardless of their social background.
This story sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Well, we are not talking about our older residence halls, those of the second half of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st century. We are describing the foundational heartbeat of the residence halls in Europe, from the 14th and 15th centuries, a historical era when the emerging European nations needed trained and prepared minorities to lead their states’ administration.
This is the context where residence halls were born: the ruling elites supported the creation of learning communities for bright young people, regardless of their social origin, since the aim was to train the most capable ones.
The residence halls were educational institutions whose purpose was to teach in order to provide accreditation for university degrees, such as bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, but what was truly characteristic was the importance given there to integral development, protection, lodging and food for the students who were welcomed there. The students learned together, but above all they developed and lived together.
The foundational heartbeat.
In spite of all the social changes, vicissitudes and transformations that our institution has undergone, that foundational heartbeat has not changed: the essence of the residence halls lies in the fact that, unlike other educational models, our students live, learn and develop within a community.
There are very few university settings that can be compared to our model of a residence hall integrated into a university as an educational and training institution. In this text, The Spanish Council of Student Residence Halls, without being exhaustive, wants to make a brief overview of the most important historical milestones of our institution to help us understand what we have in common with those original residence halls and the aspects that have changed.
Autonomy and self-management
with collegiate constitutions.
In order to achieve their foundational objectives, the founders of these residence halls granted them certain revenues that would allow them to take care of all materials and educational needs of their students, and meticulously regulated the organization of these institutions through the enactment of detailed constitutions that guaranteed their autonomy and jurisdictional, political and economic self-management of their residence halls. This system, that provided an enormous institutional stability to those residence halls, at the same time granted the rotation and temporality of certain responsibilities assumed by the students, as well as the possibility -and obligation– to train alternatively in leadership and obedience.. This involvement of students regarding control and destiny of their residence halls is something that, regardless of the changes introduced in those institutions, has survived to the present day and is an indelible part of the DNA of residence halls.
The constitutions were adapted to social changes with statutes enacted by the students themselves or by those who held supreme authority in each hall of residence: the board of trustees or the royal inspectors. In their first two centuries of history, the residence halls fulfilled the objectives of their creation: select the best individuals, instruct them on intellectual and human matters, train them in loyalty, leadership and obedience, and prepare them to exercise positions of great responsibility.
Manteists against decadence
and loss of meaning.
This effort and consistency, especially in terms of strictness and fairness regarding scholarship allocation, produced positive results and the Spanish residence halls became a prestigious source of high-level officials in modern Spanish administration, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish-speaking Americas. However, it was precisely this success regarding the selection of civil servants (of humble origin, hardworking, intelligent, austere, honest, loyal to the crown) that would lead to their decadence and loss of meaning: since obtaining one of these scholarships was the surest way to achieve a good position in public administration, nobility turned their attention to these scholarships and began to hoard them in a fraudulent manner. The perpetuation of caste spirit and nepotism among students and former members would do the rest.
From the middle of the 16th century it was almost impossible to obtain a scholarship if a person did not belong to nobility or if he or she was outside the circles of privilege and nepotism that were controlled by the old students. One of the most evident manifestations of power of these circles was their monopoly over university chairs, since the former members of Council of Castilla were the ones who appointed new professors, choosing members of their own residence halls most of the time.
This situation not only caused an enormous decline of intellectual strength among residence halls and Spanish universities themselves, but also a great resentment towards the residence halls and all that they represented. The opposing sectors ended up establishing a party that would obtain important power, especially after the reign of Felipe V. This party or interest group was known as “manteísta“.
The Residence halls as a source of inspiration for Student Accommodation
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the residence halls were alternately restored and revitalized by liberal and conservative governments. For this reason, during the absolutist periods of Fernando VII, the moderate governments of the 19th century and the dictatorships led by Primo de Rivera y Franco, the residence halls regained their importance, losing it during the periods when liberals regained power. Following the definitive closure of the residence halls in the 19th century, the problem related to elite education in Spain was intensified without creating a valid alternative.
In 1910, Alberto Jiménez Fraud, a disciple of Giner de los Ríos, influenced by the regenerative spirit of Institución Libre de Enseñanza and its program of pedagogical and scientific modernization, founded “Residencia de Estudiantes”, the true heir of the intellectual legacy and fundamental spirit of the first residence halls and the most outstanding antecedent for contemporary residence halls.
The Civil War put an end to the spirit of Residencia de Estudiantes and the victors of this war deliberately tried to reformulate Jiménez Fraud’s educational program, “to form an aware, loyal and informed leading class”, and adapt it to their own needs to create a ruling elite loyal to the regime. It was not by chance that in 1943, in the destroyed university campus, an institution was founded that considered itself the heir of Residencia de Estudiantes, but with the clear intention of purifying it of everything that Residencia had meant. The Residence Hall Ximénez de Cisneros, from which Antonio de Nebrija and Diego de Covarrubias would soon emerge, paradoxically preserved a large part of the legacy that was supposed to disappear.
The institutions that were created to maintain the regime became focal points of critical thinking, dissidence and political activism.
The ideal of the primitive residence halls, recovered by Residencia de Estudiantes, rose from the ashes of the war with a clear intention to form a ruling class for Franco’s regime. In this context we must try to understand the decree of February 19, 1942, that restored the residence halls. The medieval autonomy of the residence halls was transferred to the National Council of Education, which financed the construction and maintenance of these institutions and consequently firmly established the guidelines for their functioning.
Did the regime’s intentions come to fruition regarding the refoundation of the residence halls? The key element to answering this question lies once again in the human factor: when conditions are created for young people to live, develop and learn together, the plans established on paper are often transformed. The same situation occurred in many residence halls during the sixties and seventies of the 20th century in all university districts of Spain: institutions that were created to perpetuate the regime became focal points where critical thinking, dissidence and political activism emerged.
At a time in the history of Spain when places of dialogue, political deliberation and insubordination to the status quo were necessary, the residence halls educated a generation of university students who played a leading role in the Spanish political transition and became a forum for ideas, culture and art.
The art of coexistence.
The residence halls of the late 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st century are custodians of a vibrant university tradition, the one of the residence halls of the golden age of the Spanish and European Renaissance university and the most recent one of the last seventy years of Spanish history. Our tradition contains a fundamental part of our identity: of intellectual excellence, service, tolerance and civic commitment. We are not newcomers and we must make it count. A second renaissance is taking place in the 21st century, supported by the knowledge industry.
In this context, we have an enormous advantage: due to the development of our trajectory, we are learning communities, places with people, with young people, who learn in community, who grow and develop in community. We are the perfect example of extended education and focused on competencies, in other words, significant learning experiences, both formal and informal, including an essential one: the art of coexistence.
In a new social context, facing a new educational paradigm, we must continue to focus on social capital, developing our students’ competencies, their personal and emotional growth, their social development in integration, coexistence and citizenship, and providing professional skills.
What can we offer to our students and future participants? Enormous dynamism, capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship, willingness to work in teams, ability to adapt to multicultural environments and acceptance of diversity and difference. We must recover our social prestige and reclaim our mission in the service of the university and society.
As a fellow principal reminded us in his farewell speech a few years ago, residence halls will only survive if they succeed in attracting students who share an ideal and gradually make it their own. If any of these factors is absent (- University and cultural project – Committed students -Enthusiasm), colleges eventually decline and end up disappearing or being replaced by residences, which always have the short-term advantage of immediacy, haste, search for material comfort at all costs and convenience, in short, the lack of commitment, and as Zygmunt Bauman said, these are liquid relationships, in this case within the university context.
On the horizon of an increasing national university mobility, the European Higher Education Area, the attractiveness of Spanish universities for Latin American students, and the growing international and national competition to attract talent, the residence halls have their own space that we have to claim and defend, as small universes of cultural life and creativity, as learning communities where extracurricular activities and professional skills can be certified, as institutions for tolerance and citizenship, which our society needs now more than ever.
Learning and living are the same.
Finally, I would like to bring up an enlightening reading. Simon Leys’ “A Brief History of Useless Knowledge” (Breviario de Saberes Inútiles) gives a masterly description of what a learning community is, the educational paradigm that has perfectly defined the residence halls since their founding.
“Two years I enjoyed the fraternal hospitality of a former classmate, an artist who shared housing with two postgraduate students, a philologist and a historian. We slept in bunk beds in a single common room. The place was in absolute chaos; in any other place it would have looked like a depressing shack, but in that place everything was redeemed by the work of a friend: a superb calligraphy hanging on the wall: Wu Yong Tang. “School of futility. […]
I spent two years in this school of futility; they were intense and joyful years, where learning and living were the same thing. The best description about this kind of experience is due to John Henry Newman, who, in his classic work “The Idea of a University“, makes a proposal of astonishing audacity: he says that if he had to choose between two universities, one where eminent professors teach students who merely attend classes and take exams, and other one where there are no professors, no classes, no exams, no degrees, but students live for two or three years together, he would choose the latter.
And he concluded: “How can I explain it? When a crowd of young people, keen, frank, sympathetic and observant, as young people usually are, get together and interact with each other, they are sure to learn from each other, even if there is no one in charge to teach them; the conversations of all are lessons for each other, and they thus assimilate new ideas, new points of view, fresh material to think about, and clear principles to judge and act upon from day to day.“