Sunday, September 19, 2021


It was not only colleges and universities that slaked America’s thirst for enlightenment. In 1874, John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller founded Chautauqua Institution.


Chautauqua Institution is sited on the western shore of Lake Chautauqua in the county of the same name, the westernmost in New York State. Each year (COVID aside), for nine weeks visitors gather in this idyllic location to attend days filled with lectures, exhibitions, and performances by premiere thinkers, practitioners, artists, theologians, performers, and leaders from around the world.


Vincent was a bishop in the United Methodist Church committed to enhancing adult education. Miller was an inventor and philanthropist who was especially generous to UMC causes. Incidentally, Miller was also father-in-law to Thomas Edison.


They had taken their inspiration from the Lyceum movement that flourished in the earlier decades of the 19th century. The original function of the Chautauqua Assembly was to provide training for United Methodist Sunday-school teachers. Vincent and Miller recognized that for many adults and older children, Sunday school was the only continuing education available, so from the beginning, their summer sessions included lectures on moral philosophy, the newest scientific developments, literature, artistic performances, and even religion.


What began as a “church camp” for adults, with participants staying in tents on wooden platforms, transformed into a village of Victorian gingerbread cottages and a non-sectarian center of American intellectualism in only a few years.


President Grant appeared during the 1875 season and instantly lent prestige to the fledgling movement. In 1879, Schools of Languages and Music were founded. These included continuing education opportunities for school teachers. Today, the Music School is one of the leading summer festivals for aspiring professionals, as are the Schools of Dance, Theatre, and Art. A School of Theology began in 1881, followed by the School of Liberal Arts in 1885. By that year, the Chautauqua Press had already published 93 titles, and there were “Chautauquas” in more than 30 states.


In addition to these “sons of Chautauqua,” for about fifty years, traveling tent Chautauquas were a staple of American culture, and for many rural communities were their only imported cultural event. There was no direct association between these tent Chautauquas and the Institution, and the traveling shows ranged from very legitimate intellectual revivals to little more than vaudeville shows.


Chautauqua Institution served as the summer home of the New York Symphony. When that group merged with the New York Philharmonic, Chautauqua formed its own symphony in 1929, which provides a summer venue for musicians from many of our nation’s finest orchestras. Also in 1929, the Institution founded one of the longest continuously operating summer opera companies.


An early and important initiative of the original Chautauqua Institution was the founding of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (C.L.S.C.) during the summer of 1878. The C.L.S.C. was a four-year course of assigned home reading. It was the first organized reading circle in the country — a Victorian MOOC. The Chautauquan was published as an anthology of course readings, old and new.


Its charter states that:


This new organization aims to promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science, and in secular and sacred literature, in connection with the routine of daily life, (especially among those whose educational advantages have been limited,) so as to secure to them the college student's general outlook upon the world and life, and, to develop the habit of close, connected, persistent thinking.


The participants received study guides. Regional discussion groups were formed. Initially all participants were expected to return to the Institution for four summers for lectures and discussions of what they had read the previous year. Material was offered in a four-year sequence, and new students could join in at any year. Exams were administered, and at the end of four years, diplomas were awarded.


The C.L.S.C. still exists, and one of its contemporary features is that the authors of each year’s books (which are often best sellers) appear on the Institution’s program and lead additional discussion sessions for the C.L.S.C. students.


The C.L.S.C. inspired the foundation of the Continuing Education program at the University of Chicago, and I am convinced helped prime the pump for the “Great Ideas” project that would begin there soon after.


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