Should the ideals of the Floating University set sail once more?

Ostensibly unsuccessful educational experiment still has important lessons for us today, claims historian

May 29, 2019
The Floating University
Source: Walter Harris, Photographs of the First University World Cruise (New York, 1927)

On 18 September 1926, 50 faculty members and nearly 500 students boarded the SS Ryndam in New Jersey to embark on an eight-month educational cruise designed to help students “develop an interest in foreign affairs [and] think in world terms”. The “Floating University” – the brainchild of James Lough, a professor of psychology at New York University – was setting sail.

The students visited 47 ports and met a number of foreign dignitaries, including Mahatma Gandhi, Benito Mussolini, the King of Siam and the Queen of Spain, and many later said they had been transformed by the experience. Yet the voyage was deemed an educational failure at the time and has been largely forgotten since. It has now been reconstructed by Tamson Pietsch, senior lecturer in social and political sciences and director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, who recently visited the UK to deliver papers at Loughborough University and the University of Edinburgh.

On one level, Dr Pietsch told Times Higher Education, the educational experiment was dismissed as a failure because “the rules were written in the course of the voyage by the American newspapers”, whose articles focused on student misbehaviour. “They got drunk in Japan, got into a street fight with policemen, robbed graves. There were lots of sex scandals, skipping at-shore excursions – the list went on,” Dr Pietsch said.

At a deeper level, as Dr Pietsch’s research makes clear, the story of the Floating University is revealing about “the changing politics of knowledge in the 1920s”.

Inspired by the progressive educational ideals of John Dewey, Professor Lough, on being appointed dean of NYU’s new Extramural Division in 1908, turned the whole city into “the university’s laboratory” and “established instruction in accounting, foreign trade, investment and finance at various locations in the Wall Street district; courses in government in the Municipal Building; courses in art appreciation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and an extensive programme of engineering courses at Grand Central Station”. A Floating University was only a logical extension of what he had done in New York.

Although NYU was initially supportive of his plans, by 1926 times had changed. Financial pressures had spurred “a profound shift in the university’s sense of its own dominion”, Dr Pietsch said. By establishing schools and credentials in fields such as business, engineering, journalism and retail, where people had traditionally learned on the job, “they were staking a claim for their higher authority, not only over the ways mastery in these domains might be acquired, but also over the ground on which knowledge claims could be made”. The institution’s new business model “increasingly rested on a claim to authority over knowledge that was completely incompatible with Lough’s ventures”.

As a result, NYU distanced itself from the Floating University before it set sail and granted Professor Lough leave of absence on half-pay, on condition that he find another job afterwards.

Although they set off to see the world, Dr Pietsch said, the students aboard the Floating University visited jazz clubs and war graves, met ambassadors and consular officials and so largely learned about “America’s emerging global power”. Some returned home to become missionaries or international businessmen, while a man called Bishop Chance, said Dr Pietsch, “built a garden in the middle of Centralia, Missouri which had plants from all the over the world, because he wanted to give people the opportunity to feel the international in the same way that he did”.

Apart from such human interest stories, though, why should we care about the Floating University today?

If the events mark a turning point in the “politics of knowledge”, Dr Pietsch explained, “we may be reaching the end of an era when the university is able to claim a monopoly over all forms of knowledge, not least because there is a response from publics saying ‘I know things, too. Technocrats and experts can’t capture what it is like to live my life.’ Universities need to listen to that a lot more.”

In revisiting “the relationship between experts and their publics”, Dr Pietsch said, it could be useful to go back to the progressive educational ideas that Professor Lough embraced. “John Dewey thought that publics were really good at defining problems, because they lived them, and that the job of the intellectual was to go off and find the solution,” she said. “That is the inverse of how we understand the role of the university and experts at the moment, where they can define the problem and generate the solution, and the job of getting publics on board is just a translation exercise.”


Print headline: Relaunch ideal of Floating University, says scholar

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles