Deckchair tutorial: students were offered lectures in 73 different subjects

All aboard the ship of self-improvement

Why did NYU withdraw its support before the Floating University had left port?

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Over recent decades, academic qualifications have become an essential (or at least highly desirable) entry ticket to an increasing range of careers. Think journalism, marketing and indeed many other areas of business.

Traditional forms of “experiential learning”, relying on what Tamson Pietsch calls “on-the-job experience and the guidance of practitioners” rather than books and lectures, have been devalued in the process. Her dazzling new book vividly recreates the story of a striking educational experiment to illuminate the history and nature of this major development. 

The Floating University: Experience, Empire and the Politics of Knowledge, Tamson Pietsch (Chicago, £32)

The SS Ryndam set sail from New York in September 1926. Some 306 young men, 57 young women and 133 mature students embarked on an eight-month, round-the-world trip which stopped off at 47 different locations. They were given reading lists and a choice of lectures in 73 different subjects. Formal on-board teaching was always intended as only one strand of a much broader kind of educational experience, however. 

Since the organisers were well-connected, the students got a chance to hang out in grand hotels and attend receptions hosted by American ambassadors and diplomats. They visited post-coup Portugal, rapidly-industrialising Japan and pre-revolutionary China. They produced a daily newspaper called the Binnacle and performed in the Globe Trotters jazz band. 

They tried to assess the impact of different forms of colonial rule in India, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. They made the inevitable trip to Paris and reflected on their roots in the Holy Land, on the battlefields of the First World War, and on the Shakespearean ghosts of Stratford-upon-Avon. 

Perhaps most remarkable of all, since those aboard the SS Ryndam were perceived as likely future leaders of the world’s rising superpower, they got a chance to meet Mussolini, the king of Thailand, Gandhi and even the Pope. Seeing a perfect photo opportunity, the Italian dictator shook hands with every student in turn.

We might dispute how far the trip justified its claim to be “an experiment in democratic theories of education”. Not only were the students all white and generally privileged, but the teaching and encounters arranged for them were carefully designed to present a particular and positive view of the United States’ international role — even if the frequent defeats inflicted on the ship’s sports teams tended to dent national pride. 

Pietsch uses memoirs and material from almost 50 archives to paint a rich and amusing picture of these well-heeled, but often naïve young Americans discovering the world. The detail is compelling: exotic pet monkeys, marmosets and parakeets were purchased in Panama, for example, but all had to be chloroformed and dropped overboard in Los Angeles because of quarantine restrictions. 

It seems clear, however, that the cruise’s model of experiential learning gave participants a different (and arguably deeper) understanding of other countries than would have been possible if they had remained within the lecture halls of the institution that had initially sponsored it, New York University. Why then did NYU get cold feet and withdraw its support even before the SS Ryndam had left port? To answer that question, Pietsch takes us back to earlier times and some crucial issues in “the politics of knowledge”. 

Lough decided to treat the whole city as the university’s laboratory

The key instigator of the Floating University initiative, James Lough, was deeply influenced by the psychology of William James and the educational philosophy of John Dewey, which stressed the pedagogic value of experimentation and “doing things in and with the world”. When he became the founding dean of NYU’s Extramural Division in 1908, Lough decided to treat the whole city as the university’s laboratory. He launched courses on investment in the stock exchange, art appreciation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and engineering in Grand Central Station. What could be more natural than to extend the same basic idea to the much larger laboratory provided by the rest of the world?

Yet by 1926, as Pietsch argues, “experiments celebrating the value of direct experience” had come to be seen as “incompatible with the university’s expanding claims to authority over knowledge”. International relations was becoming established as a formal academic discipline, with all that entailed in the way of “journals, conferences, summer institutes, and new paying audiences for university-sanctioned expertise”. Professors were becoming “the recognized authorities on how to know the world”. 

Given this context, Pietsch explains, NYU wanted to “render its walls much less permeable than Lough’s initiatives had made them” and to focus on courses “delivered on campus and taught by academic authorities”. Contractual factors meant that Lough was allowed to set off on his cruise, with the proviso that he find another job at the end of it. NYU’s name, furthermore, “was not to be used in any connection with the undertaking”. 

Now that the Floating University lacked institutional support, public attitudes to it were largely shaped by the extensive press coverage. Since students came from all over the country, Pietsch points out, this “presented US newspapers with an attractive local angle on a national story”. In 1926, there was a good deal of anxiety about co-education and student hedonism; sexual experimentation was not yet considered an almost essential element of one’s college years. 

Outraged headlines included one in the Detroit Free Press: “Sea Collegians Startle Japan with Rum Orgy”. Nine students were sent home in disgrace. Much of the misbehaviour reported in the book sounds mild and utterly predictable, though, even by the standards of 1920s campuses: students colluding to conceal the identity of a stowaway; giant firecrackers set off on deck; something described as “a wild party”, involving “a jar of peanut butter and Ping-Pong until dawn”. 

Once back on dry land, individual alumni went on to become missionaries, physicists, racing drivers, Antarctic explorers and oil barons. Some later tried to relaunch the idea of the Floating University. By 1930, a newsletter reported ten marriages between couples who had met on “Cupid’s ship”, including Lough’s son Edwin, and three “cruise babies” born to them

Nevertheless, the Floating University was widely regarded as a failure at the time, and it has been almost forgotten since. Over and above the hostile press coverage, Pietsch argues, this is because universities such as NYU largely won the battle to prioritise academic over experiential knowledge. Her book offers a highly entertaining account of a bold, ambitious, though undoubtedly flawed educational experiment, which sheds light on wider debates about knowledge and expertise.

Pietsch concludes with the intriguing suggestion that, in the light of today’s major environmental and other challenges, we might do well to look again at “Professor Lough’s vision of personal and embodied experience” linked to, rather than sharply separated from, “institutional authority”.

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