Archives for category: sea travel

christmas-1926The students of the Floating University spent Christmas 1926 in the middle of the Indian Ocean, en route from Java to Ceylon.

The ship had crossed the Equator on 23 December and there was much anticipation among the passengers at the prospect of seeing the Southern Cross. But for the past week the sky had been obscured by clouds, frustrating the hopes of the group of students who had been keeping a night-time vigil on the hurricane deck.

December 24th dawned wet and rainy in the tropical heat.

The Planet Players did their best to bolster the Christmas feeling, by staging a nativity pageant on Christmas Eve complete with shepherds, angels and three Kings. And a “proper Christmas dinner” of turkey, plum pudding and rum sauce, attended by party hats and presents, seemed to rouse spirits. But Christmas day itself moved slowly. Dean Heckel held a sparsely attended service in the morning and those who could afford it sent radiogram messages home.

Things improved in the evening when the “Carnival” got under way. Food stalls, moving picture shows, magic tricks, fortune telling, a beauty parlour, bazaar, and of course the now standard deck-dance were all staged on the promenade deck, followed by an auction, the proceeds of which were distributed to the crew.

Despite these celebrations, there was a definite air of melancholy aboard the Ryndam.  The mail from the United States had not arrived before the ship had left Batavia and many of the students were missing home. For all their bravado, this was a moment when they perceived their finitude and the limitations of their ways of knowing. “Bells and fur-lined Santas [were] hard to conjure and much out of place”, was what Lucille Holling wrote in her diary; “This is not the Christmas part of the world”, was Tom Johnson’s assessment.

Most cruise members tumbled into bed, looking forward to the prospect of fresh distractions in Colombo.

Yet the few who embraced the warm southern night and stayed up late that evening, after the carnival stalls were packed away, were richly rewarded. There, blazing brightly in the unfamiliar sky on the port side of the ship, were the five twinkling stars of the Southern Cross, winking their own stories back down to the deck.




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 …


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