Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Chatauquas: Education and Uplift

I first ran across the word "Chatauqua" in 1975 when I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The author, Robert Pirsig, explains that in writing ZAMM he was inspired by the idea of a Chatauqua, and that ZAMM is a Chatauqua:

“What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. "What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.”

Okay, so what is a Chatauqua? 

Chautauquas were first begun in 1874 to teach "out-of-school, vacation learning" in an informal setting, and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was established in 1878 as "the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a college education" for those who could not attend college. "The CLSC program was intended to show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing, and theater-going, that posed a threat both to good morals and to good health." 

Chautauquas rapidly became a popular form of "education and uplift." They primarily took the form of a community-wide lecture. Speakers talked about a wide variety of topics, including travel, current events, and storytelling. Some Chautauquas had permanent housing but others traveled from town to town with a circus tent. 

Theodore Roosevelt called the Chautauqua "the most American thing in America," and William Jennings Bryant called it "a potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation." 

The Chautauqua continued in popularity until the Great Depression brought about its demise in the 1930s. 

I love the idea of Chautauquas. There are only so many puzzles you can put together and sit-coms you can watch. Why not learn something while we are stuck at home?

Here are some modern-day Chautauquas I've run across lately:

Many authors are talking about their books over Zoom these days. I've not found a centralized source of these talks, but I've received many alerts about upcoming talks through email.

The Great Courses has long been a source of casual learning. I've found many Great Courses available on Overdrive through my library. Great Courses can also be purchased online here.

The Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service provides many lectures on natural resources, animals, plants and gardening, food, and nutrition. Your state or country may have something similar. Many of the classes are free. A list of courses is here.

Learn a language through Mango. Many libraries have Mango as part of their free online services. 

Want to write a novel? Revise a novel? Create another writing project? Join Camp NaNoWriMo. It begins in July, but you can announce your project in June and start organizing things. For more information, take a look here.

Take a free online course. Check out edX here.

Or you can always create your own course or project. Decide on a goal you'd like to achieve. Look for resources available online. And start. Share it with others, if you think there might be widespread interest.

What Chautauquas are you participating in at this time?
What Chautauquas have I forgotten to include?

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. If you want to play along, grab the button, write a post and come back and add your link to Mr. Linky at Bermuda Onion!

For more wordless photos, go to Wordless Wednesday.

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  1. This is fascinating! Every year, my small town of Wytheville, Virginia holds a "Chautauqua Festival". It's an arts festival that features live music, a craft bazaar, and free classes on everything from cooking to poetry. Here's the link to the site: It's a huge deal in our community. Unfortunately, this year's festival is cancelled. :(

  2. Chautauqua, NY! The original! I've never been but it would be an easy day's drive for us and we've talked about going. I think they still have substantial summer programs, (maybe not this summer) or you can also just go for a visit.

    I hadn't even realized it had become a sort of generic term. Very fascinating.

  3. Never heard of that before and I cannot even pronounce it

  4. Hi,
    I think it's an awesome idea...getting people together to
    learn something new. Have a great day!

  5. I first heard about the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits (a similar concept) in relation to magicians, who where often part of the edu-tainment. Many mid-list magicians shifted to Chautauqua shows as vaudeville dried up.

  6. A boy named Jim in my fifth grade class one Monday for Show & Tell said he had been to a Chautauqua that weekend. I like strange words and I guess it stuck in my mind and then got dredged up whenever I first read ZAMM. Isn't it strange that I would remember it from such a long time ago? The other event that I remember from fifth grade is watching Eisenhower's second inauguration on a TV set.

    be well... mae at

    1. Interesting, and interesting that it stuck with you all of this time.

  7. I well remember when that book was popular - my uncle came to visit and talked about it a lot. i have a feeling it will be a while before we hold any Chautauquas again.

  8. Interesting! A bit too heavy for me :)


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