You might think of this “Interiors” post as sort of a companion piece to a few others I’ve done recently, starting with this photo of the bedroom of the Lincoln children, circa 1861, and this one, a picture of a typical American teenager’s bedroom 150 years later. If these posts can be thought of as chronicling the physical spaces of young people in the Western world throughout the ages, this one is definitely part of that series.
The above photo depicts a space that we might think of as totally ordinary: the cluttered dormitory bedroom of a college student. But, in the tradition of the Interiors series, there’s a lot we can learn about recent history by looking at it. The photographer, who snapped this picture of her own room, was evidently a student at University of British Columbia in Canada. Though I know nothing about her, the two guitars suggest she may have been a music student. There’s an empty 2-liter bottle of soda lying on a pile of clothes in the foreground. On the refrigerator at the far right you can see what appears to be “magnetic poetry,” a gag toy that’s been popular, especially with university students, for about 20 years now. (Interestingly enough, as I was searching for dorm room photos for this post, I encountered several that included “magnetic poetry”). Obviously the state of disarray suggests that she’s too busy with studies or social activities to pick up, and in an environment such as this there’s not much incentive to. If you’ve been to college you know this is entirely ordinary: dorm rooms are usually trashed.
This photo tells us a lot about the rise of education and universities in the modern era. Before World War II, a college education was exclusively the purview of the rich. It is becoming that way again, unfortunately, but in the “boom decades” of the 1940s through the early 1970s, middle-class parents got pretty used to sending their kids to college, and university education became available to a much wider swath of the population. Part of this came about as a result of heavy government investment in university education in the U.S., Britain and Canada. By using universities as research think tanks, the public sector reaped huge benefits of their investments. The space program, improved health care and the development of the Internet are among these benefits. At the same time, millions of middle-class kids became educated and gained access to white collar jobs. This has become a standard part of the social contract. It also explains the current student debt crisis: the demand for university education has stayed constant, while financial resources to pay for it have dwindled. Debt makes up the difference, but this is clearly unsustainable. In the next few years or decades, we will likely see a new transformation of university education, which will probably involve at least partial forgiveness of student debt on a large scale and public reinvestment in educational resources. These issues are already fulminating in electoral politics in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
In the meantime, dorm rooms like this–half-hotel, half-home–continue to be an important part of the “life cycle” of middle-class kids. I doubt they’ll get much cleaner in the coming years.