A Very Special Collection

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Started my work in the special collections at the University of Maryland this week and I have to say, it’s incredible what I’ve already discovered in these documents. It was well worth the trip. There are a lot of documents missing that would make things a bit clearer, but I’m already sitting at 1000% more information about this stuff than I was last week.

The project is tracing down who, and why, German university debaters came on a debate tour of the United States in 1930. I found a transcript in those old books that I love that are collections of debate speeches from across the country. If you have read this blog you know about the Edith Phelps Debater’s Annuals. So far I have found two transcripts of German debates against American debaters on the question of military readiness.

There’s a passing mention by Phelps as to who was behind hosting these debates, so I went down that path and found it to be a rabbit hole. There are three, possibly more, organizations that rose out of World War 1 that have the express purpose to generate international understanding and goodwill among young people, often high school and university aged students, and they all have similar names. They all also have offices in New York City. So most of today was sorting out who was in charge of what and what they thought they were doing.  

The weirdest thing so far is the obsession these organizations have with hygiene and self-help. I’m not sure what the latter term means, I think it means getting the money or support together yourself to go to university. The first term is pretty clear. Although to the credit of one organization that was having a large, international conference on student self-help, one of the organizers wrote to a government official (not really sure who he was as his response letter doesn’t appear in the archive) asking him to make sure the students pass through Ellis Island 2nd class passengers not the steerage rate, as they are university students who are only traveling that way as that’s what the money could provide. Such a shame if their welcome was to go through that “process.” Not sure what it entailed, but I could imagine a pretty invasive and embarrassing examination of the body. Times haven’t changed that much. 

Tomorrow I’ll go in more detail though the boxes. Today was cut short - only a couple of hours of research - because Uber drivers here in Maryland (or the DC area) are incompetent. I have had the worst trips I’ve had in a while today. I even think one driver racially profiled me: When I got into the car he was playing some great hip-hop stuff, then it suddenly changed to old country. Do I look like an old country fan? I am a middle aged guy. I’m not sure I like this racial profiling thing.  

I hope to connect more dots tomorrow. Today I got a lot of great information but sadly it only opens the case further. More research to be done. Now there are a number of debate tours I have to track down. So far there’s an Oxford tour, an English Universities tour (would love to get the difference there!), Scottish (although in the secretary’s hand in the margin there is a note “Nothing mentions Scotland in the files, did he misspeak?” In talking about a typed dictation from the President of the organization), a Dutch tour, and a Turkish one. Tracking these down is going to be pretty time consuming but might be a really great piece of debate and higher education history. And here we are, thinking that international experiences are still kind of unusual for undergraduates.