The Floating University: Experience, Empire, and the Politics of Knowledge by Tamson Pietsch - review by William Whyte

William Whyte

The Students Who Went to Sea

The Floating University: Experience, Empire, and the Politics of Knowledge


University of Chicago Press 323pp £32 order from our bookshop

What could possibly go wrong? More than three hundred overprivileged American students travelling the world on a hastily converted troopship, led by a recently sacked university professor determined to prove that travel could be as educational as any university course and keen to make money in the process.

Underfunded, under-recruited and poorly run, the ‘Floating University’ circumnavigated the world over a seven-month period, generating appalling headlines almost everywhere it went. ‘Sea Collegians Startle Japan with Rum Orgy,’ proclaimed the Detroit Free Press. ‘Floating University’s Classes Thinned by Lure of Paris Cafes,’ observed the Tampa Times. The China Press denounced the ‘world circling rah-rah boys’, while one Dutch-language newspaper ran an article under the headline ‘The Floating University … Thank God, Will Not Visit Curaçao.’

Reading Tamson Pietsch’s scholarly, consistently entertaining book, it is sometimes hard to identify anything that went right. The tour, which ran from September 1926 to May 1927, was disowned by its initial sponsor, New York University, who also dismissed the figure behind it, Professor James E Lough. It was not just that his Floating University inspired such dreadful coverage. It was not just that the failure to enrol enough male students required him to take on board other paying passengers, including a number of women whose relationships with the men provoked further comment. It was also that New York University was forced to close all its overseas courses as a result of the catastrophic farrago. So many and so varied were the problems encountered by the expedition that the reader barely blinks when the Indiana Gazette is quoted reporting, ‘Bubonic Plague Found on “Floating University”.’

These difficulties were not merely of local concern, irrelevant outside the realm of American academia. An international project, the whole scheme was widely recognised as having global significance. The students were introduced to the king of Siam, Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. Writing of their visit to Japan, however, the American ambassador observed that their behaviour ‘had done more to hurt the relations between the two countries than anything that had happened for fifteen years’.

The great achievement of this book is Pietsch’s use of the hapless Lough and his ill-fated excursion to explore some big and important questions about universities more generally. Wholly aware of just how farcical the Floating University might now appear, she successfully demonstrates the value of taking it seriously as a subject of study. In her hands, it becomes a way of understanding a world in flux and a period of momentous change for universities.

Even the boat itself tells a story. The Dutch-registered SS Ryndam was one of scores of ships looking for a purpose in the 1920s. Originally built to ferry impoverished immigrants to America, it had been refitted for military purposes during the First World War. But postwar curbs on immigration meant that the steamship had no market to return to and needed to find new sorts of passengers. Its transformation into a place of study provides an example of the range of ways in which shipping firms sought to diversify.

More importantly, Pietsch shows that the Floating University emerged out of long-standing debates about the very nature of higher education. Universities typically gained their authority from being the custodians of knowledge. Their libraries and lecture rooms were understood as places where students were granted unique access to truth by their professors. Lough, by contrast, argued that education had no boundaries, that learning by doing was better than simply imbibing the received wisdom of the academy.

It was a bold, even visionary approach, and one with a distinguished pedigree. Lough was inspired by the philosopher William James, whose monumental Principles of Psychology (known as ‘the James’ by aficionados) emphasised the importance of experience as a basis for understanding. The Floating University also owed much to the work of John Dewey, another philosopher-cum-psychologist, who similarly advocated the need for experiential learning. Travelling the world, actually encountering the cultures they were studying in the classroom, Lough’s students were intended to be a living embodiment of this approach.

Pietsch argues that what really did for the Floating University was not the bad publicity but the radicalism of Lough’s thinking. Less visionary figures were unimpressed; indeed, they feared the loss of control that his project implied. If experience was as valuable – perhaps even more valuable – than book learning or lectures, then what future was there for the university as an institution? The Floating University was killed off, in other words, to ensure that other, more conventional universities could continue to assert their monopoly over learning.

Using a huge variety of sources – from oral histories to memoirs, from photographs to press reports – Pietsch goes on to ask what the students’ experiences on the tour amounted to. All wealthy, all white (black applicants were turned down), they were introduced to an imperial world and proved enthusiastic supporters of all sorts of empire. True, some made a trip to visit Gandhi in India. But most, Pietsch shows, became ever keener on British imperialism, as well as the expansion of American power. What travel did, in other words, was confirm and entrench the things they already believed.

This was not what Lough had intended. Certainly, it seems a fairly limited return for his time and his charges’ money. There are, however, hints that for some, at any rate, this educational odyssey was neither a disaster nor a damp squib. Relationships were forged – and babies born. Books were inspired and careers made.

Travel to Centralia, Missouri, and you can still visit the Chance Gardens, where different landscapes of the world have been re-created. In the midst of the gardens is a Japanese pagoda designed to hold memorabilia picked up on the Floating University’s travels. It’s just one vestige of a doomed voyage that, as Pietsch describes it, reveals much about universities both then and now.

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