When the Floating University set sail from New York in September 1926 on its seven-month cruise around the world, its educational status was already uncertain, undermined by New York University’s last minute withdrawal of sponsorship. However, once underway, the voyage was to face another kind of difficulty. As a ‘pedagogical experiment’ that emphasised individual experience as the way to know the world, the Floating University grew out of contemporary discourses within both popular culture and the new discipline of psychology. But as a world cruise of 500 wealthy American young people, it was also rooted in interwar cultures of consumption and production that brought it into close contact with an increasingly global mass media hungry for scandal. And scandal was something that students of the Floating University readily provided.
This paper is interested in how the question of the success or failure of the Floating University was determined not in academic journals, student assessments or university classrooms, but instead in the newspapers, not only of the United States but of countries across the world. In doing so it presents research-in-progress that takes up the insights of a generation of historians of science who have shown that what counts as success in experimentation is constituted by social cultures and contexts and their measures of trust and respectability. This, indeed, was something the leaders of the Floating University were to discover, much to their cost.