What is Chautauqua? A brief story.
But what exactly is “here”?
For some, the lowercase “chautauqua” is a common noun, used as shorthand for an educational event consisting of lectures, performances, and/or concerts., and not linked to a particular geographical context. It turns out that Chautauqua – the town and institution that gave rise to the word – has a long history, leading to a social movement that defined America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The western New York site, located about an hour and a half from Buffalo, has been visited by prominent figures in United States history, including four sitting presidents (Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton), Susan B. Anthony, Sandra Day O’Connor and Mark Twain. President Theodore Roosevelt attended it several times, calling it “the most American thing in America”. Socialist social organizer Frank Bohn once said, “He who doesn’t know Chautauqua doesn’t know America.”
The name Chautauqua is said to come from a word in the language of the Erie Indigenous peoples meaning a bag tied in the middle or two moccasins tied together – a reference to the odd shape of the lake that bears the name: two elongated bodies of water, barely connected. The town of Chautauqua was founded in 1805, slightly west of the lake.
In 1874, two Methodists, philanthropist Lewis Miller and minister John Heyl Vincent, founded the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, a college station and educational experiment to train Sunday school teachers and church workers. Gradually, the Assembly moved beyond its religious origin and would eventually evolve into the Chautauqua institution we know today.
A few years after the creation of the original Assembly, it spread to other areas of general education. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was founded in 1878 with the mission of providing those who could not afford higher education with an “academic prospect”.
One of the first experiments in distance learning, the CLSC’s four-year course was taught by mail correspondence and guided home reading. It was intended to help people use their free time in more rewarding ways (instead of, for example, gambling or drinking). Students from outlying areas—often women and rural workers—formed reading circles to stay motivated and share the cost of books, spreading Chautauqua’s influence beyond western New York. Upon completion of their study, they were invited to Chautauqua to receive certificates of completion.
The CLSC’s success led to what became known as the Chautauqua movement, sparking “chautauqua girls” that sprang up in remote parts of the United States from the 1870s through the 1930s. Eventually, the word chautauqua became a generic term to describe a range of educational events in rural areas. Traveling chautauquas began to appear around the turn of the century, also known as circuit chautauquas or tent chautauquas, with speakers and performers hired by talent agencies. According to some historians, the movement peaked around 1915, when 12,000 communities hosted a chautauqua.
The movement died out in the 1920s. Historians cite a number of causes: a rise in car culture; the increased dominance of evangelical Christianity which did not match the free-thinking nature of the chautauquas; and increasing educational opportunities for women. The depression also made financing difficult.
Nearly a century later, several active chautauquas remain in operation outside of western New York, in places such as Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania and Ridgway, Colorado. And the original Chautauqua institution continues to thrive, attracting more than 142,000 visitors each summer for a nine-week season. Guided by four pillars – arts, education, religion and recreation – the organization has its own theater company, symphony, opera, ballet and visual arts center, as well as courses, interfaith conferences, a rotating chaplain and outdoor recreation.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the institution the epitome of the “pursuit of happiness”. “Happiness with a capital ‘H’ is about lifelong learning and betterment of brain, heart, body and soul throughout life,” he said. at the Chautauquan Daily. “And there is no place on Earth that embodies that rigor and joy more than the Chautauqua Institution.”
Mary Khosh, who has been at Chautauqua for 50 years, said the institution is used to handling difficult conversations with grace, which makes Friday’s attacks all the more shocking.
“It’s not a place where no one is shy about discussing anything controversial. It’s a place where you do discuss heavy topics,” she said. “The wonderful thing about Chautauqua is that it’s inclusive, welcoming and warm. And I hope people won’t be so scared that they’ll change all that.