How to know the world? What the untold story of the 1926 Floating University world cruise says about how universities came to have authority over knowledge in the 20th century.
Dr Tamson Pietsch, Director of the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology, Sydney
This seminar took place on Tuesday 28th May at 50 George Square.
In September 1926, 500 American university students left New York on the Floating University. The brainchild of New York University’s Professor of Psychology, James E. Lough, it was billed as an eight-month ‘educational cruise around the world’ that would stop at forty-seven ports and pay visits to foreign dignitaries including the King of Siam, the Sultan of Jodhpur, Mussolini and the Pope. Promising a ‘college year of educational travel and systematic study to develop an interest in foreign affairs, to train students to think in world terms, and to strengthen international understanding and good will’, the venture had strong intellectual foundations in the new psychology and new educational movements pioneered in the United States by William James and John Dewey. These were movements that celebrated direct, personal experience in and with the world as key to learning. This approach brought the Floating University into conflict with the expanding reach of America’s universities. In the 1920s they were asserting their own authority over knowledge of the world. Their expanding curriculums and new relationships with government and business were founded on the notion that it was university degrees taught by academic experts – and not direct experience – that should stand as the ultimate certification of knowledge claims. The tensions between these two approaches were revealed when Professor Lough’s Floating University claimed both the status and authority of the university and the thrill of adventure on the high seas. It was a stand off between direct, personal experience and authorised, specialised knowledge that the universities ultimately won. In an era in which experts’ claims to know the world are being contested by a post-truth politics that distrusts specialised knowledge and instead cites the authenticity of more direct and personal forms of knowing, this paper examines the circumstances in which the boundary of what counts as authoritative knowledge (and what does not) was drawn.
Tamson Pietsch is Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS and host of the History Lab podcast. Her research focuses on the history and politics of knowledge and she writes regularly on universities and higher education, past and present. Tamson is the author of Empire of Scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939. She is currently leading a project on the history of expertise in Australia and writing a book about the world-wide interwar voyage of the Floating University.