At first glance, the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State might appear to be a relic of the past. Beautiful Victorian houses and quaint cabins sit on the banks of an idyllic lake. Visitors can stroll on the beautiful grounds of the Institution, take a dip in the lake or take in a musical performance at the Institution’s amphitheatre.
But for all these physical trappings of the past, the Chautauqua Institution is decidedly modern. Think distance learning is the invention of the internet age? Think again. Chautauqua initiated an early correspondence degree in 1878 for those without the resources to pursue higher education at a residential institution, particularly women and those living in rural areas of the country. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle continues to operate today, promoting literature and serious reading at the Institution and in local reading groups, buttressed by the appearance of authors and intellectuals as part of a larger, organic movement created by and associated with the Institution.
Chautauqua offers a host of lifelong learning opportunities, concentrated primarily in summer programming (lectures, performances, classes and many other events) centered on particular themes. In many ways the place defies easy categorization. As a New York Times reporter observed last summer, Chautauqua is wholly unique – a space from which the writer emerged “intellectually and spiritually moved.”
Originally established as an experiment in “vacation learning” for Methodist Sunday school teachers in 1874, the Chautauqua Institution quickly became a leader in providing ecumenical, informal and experiential education – particularly in the arts – to those from all walks of life, at a variety of venues and through a variety of forms. As one of the founders of Chautauqua wrote in 1885, the Institution was founded on the belief that all could benefit from the arts and that all were deserving of exposure to the beauty of the world: “The men of trade, factory and field need the association of the theorist and the professions; the theorist and the professions need contact with the arts and artisan.”
Chautauqua became that place – the original lifelong learning initiative — not only as a space for individual enjoyment and discovery, but as a way of making use of that learning – a platform for solving the big problems of the day, for convening the “churchman, the statesman, the humanitarian […] free from caste and party spirit” to “inaugurate measures that will mould and inspire for the right,” as a Chautauqua founder wrote at the end of the nineteenth century.
Though the Chautauqua Institution was founded over 130 years earlier than Books@Work, the two organizations have much in common. In many ways, we regard Chautauqua as our ideological grandparent, pioneering a commitment to supporting and sustaining educational opportunity and intellectual engagement for all.
This is why we are so pleased to announce the beginning of a new partnership between Books@Work and Chautauqua that helps extend the Institution’s educational mission to the employees who make the organization tick – from the maintenance workers who trim the grass to the administrators who design and facilitate the public fora that are the backbone of the Institution’s summer offerings.
This week we begin two new Books@Work programs for Chautauqua’s employees, partnering with a wonderful group of faculty from Fredonia (SUNY). We are excited about the beginning of this partnership – one that we hope to strengthen through collaboration on Chautauqua’s exploration of 21st century literacies this summer, and in many other ways in the years to come.
Images: L.E. Walker, View on Simpson Avenue, late nineteenth century, New York Public Library, Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons; and CLSC advertisement, 1894 [Public Domain], via Amazon.com.