Was the 1926 Floating University a Failure?

 In 1926 an American university went into the sea and caused an international scandal. Can it still be considered a success?

Students aboard the Floating University, Photographs of the First University World Cruise, by Walter Harris (1927). Author, Walter C. Harris, courtesy of the University Travel Association.

On the morning of November 6, 1926, Detroit Free Press readers woke up to sensational front-page headlines: 'Sea Collegians Shock Japan with Rum Orgy.' 'More than a hundred students, among whom were six girls worth noting, were doing this evening, intensive laboratory work, in the bar of the Imperial Hotel', the article continued. It later transpired that the American newspaper correspondents themselves had been in the bar of Tokyo's Imperial Hotel when students descended the sides of their recently docked ship and came ashore. Knowing promising copy when they saw it, reporters sent the story back to the United States, where it was immediately printed in newspapers across the country.

The students in question were members of the Floating University, an American educational experiment that took approximately 500 students on an eight-month voyage around the world in 1926. The leaders of the voyage believed that travel and study at sea would provide an education in international affairs not available in a land-based classroom. Instead of passive, indirect learning through textbooks and lectures, direct experience of places and people abroad will teach students to be 'world-minded'.

While the ship was at sea, students enrolled in formal classes, choosing from more than 73 subjects, including economics, mathematics, classics, psychology, public speaking, and foreign languages. Although some professors were more organized than others, the best of them linked their curriculum to experiences students had on the coast: Botany students visited botanical gardens, journalism students collected material for the stories they wrote. which were published in the ship's newspaper and art. Students sketched materials that they would later develop and analyze. Undoubtedly a large number of students did not attend to their studies, but in the opinion of the Academic Dean of the Floating University, they were undoubtedly also negligent in their studies at home.

However, as the Floating University made its way around the world, divisions soon emerged that revealed the tensions inherent in the project: Was there a distinction between students and tourists? How much latitude should students be given to 'experiment' on shore? What constitutes education? After long periods at sea, students laughed at the formal receptions and lectures hosted by their hosts and desired to investigate the cities on their own. Mobilizing Cruise's own distinction between direct experience and bookish education, many argued that uncontrolled exploration provided the same education that the floating university promised them. By this logic, having fun was not in conflict with cultural engagement and international education. Rather, it was a means to achieve it.

The raucous antics of college students were a familiar motif of interwar popular culture. Historian David Levin has argued that by the late 1920s going to college had become part of a 'culture of aspiration', to such an extent that youth crime was a desirable part of networking and social mobility. As Elwood Griscom, public speaking lecturer at the Floating University, said: 'The floating college student is essentially the same as the land-based student', and their stunts 'are not dissimilar to what happens every day on many American campuses. ' Yet these students were not attending a land-based American campus. He was enrolled in an itinerant 'educational experiment' that was launched with great fanfare and much controversy. Furthermore, the plan claimed pseudo-diplomatic status. Along the way, American ambassadors welcomed the students and introduced them to leaders including the King of Siam, Pope Pius XI, and Mussolini.

Questions about academic validity became acute when the students' behavior in port attracted the attention – and judgment – of the American and foreign press, who had a nose for scandal. It took some weeks for the true details of what had happened in Japan to emerge. Not only did the students hide in the water and drink alcohol, but one group also drank offerings from temples on the way to Nikko, took an image of Buddha from a temple, and engaged in an 'open to all fight' with Tokyo. Gone' [sic] policemen'. The US Ambassador declared that 'the barbarity has done more damage to relations between the two countries than anything that has happened in fifteen years' and threatened to cancel the entire trip. Soon American newspapers were citing students' unruly behavior as evidence of Cruz's academic failure. And, for the most part, the Floating University has been remembered that way: a showcase of everything that can go wrong in an educational journey.

Today study abroad is an established feature of university education. One in ten American graduate students in 2018 spent some time abroad during their degree. In the UK in 2017 it was one in 13. In Australia in 2018 it was one in four. Anyone who has undertaken one of these programs will know that they contain the same questions that were asked in the 1926 visit to the Floating University. For example, recent studies have shown that American students studying abroad significantly increase their risk-taking behavior. Yet the transformative benefits of international education are also well established, and those who have participated often describe it as a life-changing experience.

The students of the Floating University of 1926 were no different. Describing this cruise, a young Brewster Bingham from Connecticut said it had 'a great awakening effect': 'I sometimes felt as if I had been dreaming forever before, and here, for the first time, The realities of life were coming to the fore. Presented before me.' (Though what Bingham and his fellow students learned about the world during those eight months is a different story.) What this means is that, despite its difficulties, the Floating University should be viewed not as a failure but as a success. What should be seen as success? A leading example of an idea whose time has now come?

The story of the Floating University should ask us the question what education is. Study abroad programs are based on the belief that immersion in a place, encounters with other people, and practical engagement in and with the world can offer students something that study at home cannot. No matter how regulated or organized it is, the educational journey will always be in tension with the university's claim to be the institution that has the ultimate authority on knowledge.

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.