Archives for category: FloatingU


What is the warrant for knowledge?  If the Floating University was an educational experiment, who wrote the rules of knowing that determined what counted as its success or failure?

This is a question I have been cogitating over in preparation for a talk at the University of Birmingham this week. In it I want to think about the ways in which the categories we use as historians are themselves the product of a settlement (historical and inherently political) about what counts as legitimate knowledge.

The Floating University claimed the status and authority of the university, but also the thrill of direct experience on the high-seas and the importance and influence of American imperial internationalism. In 1926 it saw these, now separate categories, as indistinguishable. But by the time of its return to the United States in mid-1927, in the eyes of the press at least, they were categories that had begun to pull apart.

The notice above, published in The Washington Post on 17 November 1926 when the Floating University was still in Japan, provides an insight into how this began to happen. The international networks of American newspapers, including the Associated Press (AP) cable service, meant that stories of alleged student misconduct abroad was immediately fed to American newspapers hungry for scandal.

By examining the Floating University’s relationship with the mass media, I am trying to ask questions about how the boundary between authoritative expertise and personal experience; between university education and tourism, was produced in interwar America’s engagement with the world.

This is very much a work in progress, and I am hoping that the students and faculty from @MBSBirmingham and @modcontempbham will ask me penetrating questions about my own knowledge claims – hopefully without too much misconduct in the Imperial Hotel afterwards!

“Great Gatsby Gap Year: The Floating University and the Politics of Knowing in America and the Interwar World”, Tamson Pietsch (University of Sydney): Muirhead Tower, Room 122, University of Birmingham, Wed 7th Dec, 4-6pm.


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 …



Route of the 1926-27 Floating University, “College Cruise around the World: the University Afloat”, Semester at Sea Archives (8)


When it sailed from New York in September 1926, the Floating University followed what had become the standard westbound route for round-the-world travel. From New York it sailed to Havana, Panama, and Los Angeles before crossing the Pacific Ocean to Honolulu, Japan, China and the Philippines, then the Dutch East Indies, Malay States, Siam and India, crossing through Suez to Egypt and Palestine, and sailing through the Mediterranean to Europe, Scandinavia and Britain before heading home across the Atlantic.

The 1926 voyage stands as a good example of the increasing vogue for ‘round the world’ high-end travel in the 1920s. From the turn of the century American (and other) tour companies began to offer escorted travel to small groups. But many of these trips were pieced together packages, entailing all the rigmarole of customs and passport checks and moving continually between different ships and hotels. Most travellers – as Joyce Chaplin comments in her recent book on circumnavigation –‘wanted to step onto a global stage that had been carefully cleaned of any dirt, strife, and toil, even when they had caused it.’ In 1909 the Frank C. Clark Travel Agency of New York sought to eliminate these inconveniences, when they promoted an around the world luxury cruise onboard the Hamburg-America Line’s Cleveland. Sailing westwards, the ship followed the same route in in 1912 and 1913.

After the First World War demand for travel boomed among middle-class Americans, spurred by a strong American dollar and reduced fares offered by steam-ship companies looking for new business following the introduction of immigration restriction. Most of these travellers sailed east across the Atlantic or south to the Caribbean, but the 1922-23 season witnessed the advent of four around-the-world cruises run by large transatlantic liners.

Sailing on one of these ships was a luxurious affair, and one only an elite could afford. The price of a ticket began at about $1000, rising to $25,000 for the best suite on the United American Lines (the average ticket price in the 1920s was probably about $2,000 – or $25,700 in 2011) but this didn’t include tips, special entertainments or shore travel. Every comfort was catered for – the liners were modelled on hotels with comparable numbers and ranks of staff and services. (By then sailing on a foreign owned ship also enabled Americans to escape the strictures of prohibition – during its voyage of 1923-24, the 353 passengers (306 American) on the Belgenland were reported to have consumed 60,800 bottles of liquor!)

The organisers of the 1926 Floating University played into and exploited this contemporary interest in circumnavigation, and the luxurious reputation of these high-end cruises may have done something to shape the expectations of the students on board. The cost of the 1926 voyage was $2,500, including tuition and shore excursions – which puts it well in the range of the more commercial ventures. 

In the last few weeks I’ve been following the students as they travelled this route west, reading the Binnacle (the student newspaper published on board) and the diaries and letters of cruise members. I’m coming to the conclusion that the route they took was crucial. It mattered that before they encountered the rest of the world, they had been schooled in the expansive reach of imperial America (in Cuba, Panama, the West Coast and Hawaii). It mattered that before they encountered European empires in Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, India and Algeria, they had been taught the ways of America’s own progressive empire in the Philippines.

As I’m writing I’m trying to convey the process of travel and the various ways the students made meaning of what they were seeing progressively. In doing so I hope to give a rich account of the everyday life and practice of American liberal empire, of the tensions it raised and of the ways it was made.