Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Intentional Student Communities: Project Neighborhood, Pamoja House, Our Place

The Historical Context

Around the turn of the twentieth century, faculty and students in American colleges and universities began researching the “social problem.”  At several universities, the study of such social problems and a concomitant interest in settlement work began as early as the 1880s (Kemeny, 1998).  For example, Jane Addams Hull House, situated in Chicago offered an environment where college students and faculty lived in poor, urban neighborhoods to study and assist the poor. 

The Hull House served as a catalyst in the rapid growth of the social sciences.  Addams had the ability to appeal to both old and new schools of thought in American life.  Crunden (1982) suggested that “her impoverished immigrants from Europe, with their needs and problems, provided the children of Anglo-Saxon middle classes with experiences otherwise unknown to them, and this occurred within a manageable setting.  Hull-House cut both ways: it satisfied the amateur conscience wanting to do good and the professional need to research well” (p. 68).  Becoming a general secretary of a YMCA, or going to work at a settlement house became viable career options for college men and women who wanted to combine their passion for ministry with their desire to address the problems of poverty and injustice, or with their desire to foster spiritual growth in college students.

Graduating seniors from across the nation looked for ways to become involved in the evolving social reform movement as evidenced by the number of students who became involved in the settlement house movement.  Between 1886 and 1911, 17,500 students and recent graduates, mostly from affluent families, joined Jane Addams on her urban crusade (Strauss & Howe, 1991).  One graduating student from Brown University characterized the nineteenth century as one that had seen both complicated social problems, as well as a “new era of sympathy,” wherein people had begun to consider themselves more than ever as parts of “a great organic whole, upon whose welfare depends the prosperity of every individual.”  Students who committed themselves to this work would spend time with the poor, not at a distance but hand to hand and bring into the lives of those men what they most need - the inspiration of genuine sympathy and true-hearted friendship.”  Aldrich (1894) made the claim that by living among the poor and teaching thrift and industry, college settlement workers were also stabilizing the democracy.  “The worthiness and stability of a democratic government,” according to Aldrich, “must always depend upon the morality of the masses… Civic virtue is dependent on morality.  How then can a nation prosper when the integrity of her citizens is lost?”  Therefore, argued Aldrich, “the establishment of college settlements in the great nerve centers of populations marks an era of political improvement and is one of the rays of light behind the clouds which are now darkening the sunshine of our national prosperity.”  This creative new movement addressed social, moral, and political progress.  Social obligation drove men and women into the work of settlement houses in the same way that spiritual obligation had served to call men in previous generations to lives of Christian ministry. 


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