Smith Memorial Library and Bestor Plaza in the center of the Chautauqua Institution's campus. Photo: Courtesy Chautauqua Institution.
Summer 2014 Season: June 21-August 24
New York City-born President Teddy Roosevelt is credited with calling Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
The Chautauqua Institution is a non-profit educational center on Chautauqua Lake. The grounds were built in 1871 as the first location of the Chautauqua Movement — an organized gathering with the purpose to educate and introduce people to new ideas. The Movement was fitting for the progressive president as well as for many middle-class individuals, and Methodists in particular, looking to enjoy fulfilling leisure time. Today, Chautauqua continues to offer learning opportunities throughout the summer to all with a curious mind.
Upon arriving at the Institution’s campus — known as “Mother Chautauqua” and the center of the movement’s philosophy — we quickly found the stately Colonnade and Hall of Philosophy, surrounded by a public green space. There, we met Matt Ewalt, Chautauqua Institution’s Director of Communications and editor of the daily newspaper, and Jonathan Schmitz, the Institution’s archivist. Mr. Schmitz spoke to us about the history of the Institution and its related movement, which is the combined product of three earlier movements.
The first contributing movement was the camp meeting, which came about in the U.S. in the early 19th century. Camp meetings, usually held in summer, allowed those who lived on the frontier to meet, catch up and share ideas on social action including the topics of Prohibition and better treatment of the poor. When alternatives to extended travel began to appear, this approach to community bonding faded.
The second component was the British Lyceum movement, which came to the U.S. in the 1820s. Communities called on experts to give informative lectures. Later, tickets were sold and the system changed as more popular speakers were invited. This middle class self-help movement, based on the idea of lifelong learning, struck a chord with New Englanders.
The third trend was the Sunday school movement, which, like the Lyceum movement, also started in Britain and came to the U.S. in the late 18th century. Sunday school offered an educational opportunity to children who worked the other six days of the week. Following the Civil War, as the public school system grew, the prominent role of Sunday school declined and divisions between religious denominations became more pronounced.
Enter John Heyl Vincent, who created a new curriculum for Sunday school workers. Vincent went to Akron, Ohio in 1874 with the intention of hosting a two-week school for teachers. The superintendent of the Sunday school in Akron, Louis Miller, suggested Chautauqua Lake as the ideal locale to host the program. Miller was president of the board of the Chautauqua Camp Meeting Association, and Vincent had connections in the area. During that year’s inaugural two-week program, 20,000 teachers came to Chautauqua.
Because of its popularity, Vincent wanted to extend the event throughout the year with a correspondence reading course. In 1878, he assembled a four-year reading course called the College Outlook which included a variety of subjects and became known as the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC). This intensive reading course targeted those who were unable to attend university and was meant to give the equivalent of a college education. In the first year, 8,000 people signed up for the course. “Chautauqua education was good for you,” Mr. Schmitz explained to us. “It was the good use of your leisure time.”
The Chautauqua Movement grew to incredible popularity, and the model of gatherings for learning was emulated elsewhere. But the movement also divided. On one side were travelling circuit Chautauquas, popular between 1904 and 1933, where tickets were sold to hear speakers. Over time, the media ridiculed these circuits as they focused on religious fundamentalism and were just one-time events, not established communities. On the other side were more traditional “Daughter Chautauquas,” which often resembled the setup of the grounds at Chautauqua Lake — including being next to a body of water (if there wasn’t a body of water, one was dug out, Mr. Schmitz explained). These Chautauquas, replicas of “Mother Chautauqua,” encouraged people of all ages to learn. “‘Join up,’ Vincent said, ‘you can finish it in heaven,’” Mr. Schmitz quoted.
The Chautauqua Movement was never about increasing job potential through education but rather generating meaningful discussion and community through interdisciplinary studies. Chautauqua is, as it has always been, about self-improvement. “There are those who may want to think of Chautauqua as a dated model,” Mr. Ewalt explained, “but I feel strongly that Chautauqua and its focus are even more important now than they ever have been.”
For people who aren’t students in the classroom, Chautauqua provides an opportunity to return to that communal environment. As Mr. Ewalt explains, “There is something enormously satisfying and important about standing face to face with someone.”
Approximately 7,500 persons live on Institution grounds during the annual June-August season, and a total of 142,000 attend scheduled events. Visitors can purchase daily, weekly or season passes (meaning that finding lodging outside of the Institution is also an option), which include access to a variety of lectures and events. Prices for shows and additional classes vary. Current Chautauqua programming covers nine themes over as many weeks. Topics this summer include “Feeding a Hungry Planet” (June 30-July 4), “The American West” (July 21-25) and “Health Care: From Bench to Bedside” (August 19-22), among others. Illustrious featured speakers at the daily 10:45 AM lecture include television journalist Tom Brokaw, former New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson, author Margaret Atwood, poet Paul Muldoon, and documentarian Ken Burns, among many other leaders in their field.
Although arts, events, museums and lectures can be found in cities all over the U.S., Chautauqua offers a unique and diverse learning experience. With four program areas — The Arts, Education, Religion and Recreation — individuals who are interested in the symphony may discover a fondness for opera or persons with a love of literature may learn that they enjoy religious studies. The programming at Chautauqua is perfect for both enthusiasts and beginners, for people of all faiths and people without faith, for visual arts novices and experts, because it allows for discovery.
Schedule your visit and buy your passes now; Chautauqua Institution tickets are some of the most notoriously difficult to get, especially as the summer goes on.