James E. Lough c1898 (Harvard University Archives)

The Floating University of 1926-27 was the brainchild of James E. Lough, Professor of Experimental Psychology at New York University since 1901 and Dean of its Extramural Division. For the last few years I’ve been trying to find out more about him and what lay behind his big idea.

Lough had been a doctoral student at Harvard in the late 1890s where he had pursued research in experimental psychology (his PhD was on the intensity of sensation) under William James and Hugo Münsterberg. After graduation Lough taught at Harvard, Radcliffe and Wellesley colleges, before taking up a post at the State Normal School, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In all three of these contexts he would have come across the work of John Dewey, then Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, whose hugely popular book The School and Society was published in 1889.

Lough certainly read it soon after it was published – its influence on him was enormous. It made the case for many of the ideas that Dewey had been developing in the ‘Laboratory School’ he established in Chicago. It followed a model of experiential education that worked with the interests and desires of children and sought to connect the curriculum to the world outside the classroom.

‘We do not have a series of stratified earths, one of which is mathematical, another physical, another historical, and so on….. We live in a world where all sides are bound together. All studies grow out of relations in the one great common world. When the child lives in varied but concrete and active relationship to this common world, his studies are naturally unified.’ School and Society, p80

After his appointment in 1908 as Dean of the Extramural Division at NYU, Lough began to look for ways of applying the laboratory method to university contexts. He experimented first with running courses in commerce and finance on location in the Wall Street district, as well as art courses at the Metropolitan Museum. Then in 1914 Lough made his first venture into educational travel, sending a group of students studying European industrial education across the Atlantic with an instruction. The apparent success of this trip convinced Lough that, under guidance, experiences acquired during travel could be used as ‘laboratory material’ and guided courses given college credit.

(This is one of the few instances I’ve been able to find of Dewey’s methods being applied at university level, so if you know of others, please do get in touch!)

Throughout the early 1920s Lough and the Extramural Division expanded their travel programmes, running courses in several European countries. We get an articulation of the psychology that lay behind Lough’s ideas about education in a book he published in 1926 with colleagues from NYU called Psychology for Teachers. ‘All knowledge can be traced directly to sense experience … The study of every subject calls for laboratory methods whereby the learner establishes first-hand contact with his subjects … To see and to handle is far better than merely to listen’, Lough had written.

This was a line that directly echoed John Dewey: ‘The unity of all the sciences is found in geography’ he had written in School and Society, ‘It is through what we do in and with the world that we read its meaning and measure its value.’

The concept of a ‘floating university’ took these ideas about sense experience, spatial context and the laboratory method one step further. It was the ‘laboratory’ method made mobile. By taking students to particular foreign contexts – to the port-cities and great cultural sites of the world – Lough believed their minds and subjectivities might also be shaped.

It was an idea that was to bring him no end of trouble …