screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-47-38Towards the end of last year the Times Higher Education magazine asked me what my new year’s resolution was (requires subscription for access), and this is what I told them:

I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions (if it’s worth doing, do it now), but, this year, the new global politics has launched me into action. Although I do not have children, I have resolved to join the parents, teachers and friends association of my local state primary school. One of the big issues facing higher education is the gulf emerging between those who trust expertise and those who do not. Getting actively involved in my local state school is a way of strengthening the ties between the lowest and the highest levels of our education system. It is a way of building personal relationships with teachers and children and giving a human face to expertise. It is these public institutions that play such a big role in constituting the strength of our shared civil society.

I could equally have said the local public library or community organisation. What I wanted to emphasise was achievable ways to strengthen the ties between the highest level of our education system and those knowledge institutions that are freely accessible to the public. These are places where you don’t have to buy a coffee, or pay for an internet subscription, or be dressed a certain way, to sit down out of the elements and have access to the world of ideas and the human relationships that go with them. They are places with open thresholds and wide doors; places that, in the uncertain era of the new politics, we are desperately going to need.

(You can read Zadie’s Smith’s brilliant essay on the importance of the public library here.)

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 Lillian 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.

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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.