Archive for Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Chautauqua tradition relived

June 9, 2004


The other day a friend and colleague called me and asked me to write a column about the various Lawrence sesquicentennial events taking place in June and, especially, the Chautauqua, which will take place in South Park from June 24 through 29. So here goes.

According to my copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (even though it's almost a century old I still think it's the best edition), the Chautauqua movement got its name from a small village on Lake Chautauqua in New York. This town was the permanent home of the Chautauqua movement, a movement founded by two men, Lewis Miller, of Akron Ohio, and John H. Vincent, a Methodist bishop. In its earliest years, the movement was primarily religious and provided instruction for Sunday School teachers and lectures and educational entertainments for the general public.

By 1879, the movement had become effectively nonsectarian and was primarily educational in purpose, sponsoring both summer lecture programs and book publishing and home study courses. By 1907, according to the Britannica, the movement had more than 190 lecturers, 325 separate lectures and entertainments, and sponsored 200 summer schools taught by college professors around the nation. The Chautauqua that will take place in Lawrence, as well as several other cities throughout Kansas, is closely modeled on these original summer chautauquas.

The Lawrence Chautauqua will focus on "Bleeding Kansas" as the early years of the Kansas Territory are now popularly known. It will feature both "entertainments" presented by actor-scholars who will portray key figures from this period, including John Brown and Frederick Douglass, and educational discussions by these scholars about the period. What is, to me, so fascinating about these plans is not only will we be able to learn about this crucial period in Lawrence history but we will also be able to experience what it was like to attend a Chautauqua and learn in the very same way, in a tent on a summer's day, just as our ancestors did.

We live in an age in which we are told that learning is a lifelong activity. Universities like Kansas University and Kansas State University have large departments devoted to continuing education. University faculty routinely give lectures and seminars on a wide variety of subjects.

More and more, people turn to the Internet for continuing education as well. Anyone with a computer can learn almost anything through 21st century technology. But sometimes we forget that we didn't invent "lifelong learning." It seems to me that the opportunity to learn by a method which our great grandparents used is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.

Of course, there will be other sesquicentennial events in addition to the Chautauqua. Local historian Katie Armitage will portray Julia Louisa Lovejoy Thursday at the library, and on June 30 the Lawrence City Band will present a sesquicentennial concert in South Park. What a wonderful way to learn about our local history and to leave today's troubles behind for a few hours and return to the 19th century.

I hope that I see you all there.

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