Recap: “Missouri in the World, and the World in Missouri” w/ UTS’s Tamson Pietsch

When it’s written about, which is rarely, NYU Professor of Psychology James Lough’s Floating University, the origin myth for today’s semester-at-sea programs and perhaps the first for-credit U.S. study abroad offering, is cast as a large-scale failure. But if we trace the story back to a Centralia, Missouri, railway station in 1926, and if we return to Centralia today to see the impression left on a small midwestern town by a near-century-ago circumnavigation of the globe, something quite different than failure comes to light.

Delivering the Kinder Institute’s first Distinguished Lecture in Atlantic History, University of Technology Sydney Senior Lecturer and Director of the Australian Centre of Public History Tamson Pietsch explained how Lough, a disciple of William James, saw the pedagogical experiment of the Floating University as an opportunity to establish the educational value of direct experience with the world. Freed from the narrow confines of textbooks, not only would students on the ship gain first-hand knowledge of foreign affairs through meeting the leaders and observing the cultures of other nations; though certainly less quantifiable, they would also learn to think in global terms. One of these students—and the occasion of sorts for Prof. Pietsch’s Midwestern sojourn—was Francis Gano Chance, a Mizzou undergraduate recruited to the Floating University by MU Professor of History and Dean of Men Albert Heckel, one of the first educators Lough tapped to join him as a faculty member on the SS Ryndam.

One look at the Ryndam as it pushed off from Hoboken Pier revealed not only an imagined version of rising America in the 1920s but also the inequitable power relations that shaped the nation at the time. All passengers—students but as in the case of Chance, some parents as well—were men and women of means and all were white. The ship passed through its first port, Havana, with its ambassadorial potential and educational legitimacy still intact. The press, following the journey with baited breath from home, fixated from the beginning on how discipline would work on a ship where students were honor code-governed, but the stories from Cuba—of glee clubs and the clicking of typewriters on board the ship—proved student resolve and self-restraint strong (though Gano’s photographs of undergrads spilling out of free beer lines told a somewhat different story). The headline would change once the ship crossed the Pacific: “Sea Collegians Startle Japan with Rum Orgy.” There was tell in the media of women smoking and men drinking, of a break-in to the Emperor’s suite at the Imperial Hotel, and of fights with police on the streets of Tokyo. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan claimed the vandalism set relations between the two countries back decades, and a series of expulsions were subsequently leveled to ease tensions. Letters home, as well as editorials from the ship’s in-house newspaper, The Binnacle, likewise persistently rebuked the ne’er-do-well few for tarnishing the reputation of the many, but scandal still followed the ship, coming to a head when news of a second voyage, this time only for men, leaked and word of ship romances and weddings followed. The presence of women, press members like Henry Allen decided, was to blame for both a lack of discipline and a lack of learning, and in general, everyone seeking a thesis for their arguments concerning the failure of Lough’s experiment finally had one in co-education.

Ultimately, neither the Floating University nor its founder could outrun this legacy. Lough was fired by NYU, and upon attempting a re-launch of the program years later, he found himself the subject of a State Department investigation which determined the very concept of the Floating University to be an unfit educational enterprise. As Prof. Pietsch’s current research reflects, this narrative and the problem of assessment at its core are long overdue to be revisited. That it was the press, and not educators, who adjudicated Lough’s hypothetical—whether experience gained via travel was worthy of college credit—reflects a troubling victory, or at least a serious incongruence, in the 1920s fight over who got to define what was and what wasn’t a viable method of study.

Which brings us back to Centralia. Though initially unimpressed by the voyage, Gano’s parents, A.B. and Fancy Chance, came to embrace life aboard the Ryndam, and in their letters back to Missouri expressed regret for not being able to photograph more of what they saw around the globe. To make up for what they couldn’t bring back to Missouri, they transformed the grounds of their home into a living record of their time abroad, complete with a Japanese garden, a replica of the Taj Mahal, and a model of the lagoon where Moses was found in the bulrushes. The Chance’s act of re-shaping experience into a publicly accessible history is, Prof. Pietsch argued, one of many touchstones that we might cite in re-claiming the value of the experiment in modern education that Lough undertook. Student accounts of the trip spun countless tales of all that is missed by letting education play out only in the classroom. And the jobs that many Floating University alum went on to take—in international relations, as journalists, and with the telephone companies—collectively speak to a worldliness and curiosity cultivated while at sea. The moral of the story, Prof. Pietsch noted in closing, is a simple one: that personal experience really does matter and, as such, that we need to continue to challenge universities’ stranglehold on being the primary authorizers of what constitutes knowledge.