At the start of the month, when I was vacationing at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, I was startled, in this serene lakeside community, to hear a brass band early in the morning. I looked up to find this parade of people with colorful banners going by on Bestor Plaza.
From similar vivid visual displays hanging at Alumni Hall, I strongly suspected that this activity involved the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC). As a matter of fact, it was Recognition Day—i.e., for graduates of this program that involved approximately four years of reading.
Begun in 1878 as a book club and correspondence course, the CLSC is only four years younger than Chautauqua itself. Its original aim was to increase learning for those who, because of age or life situation, had no formal school experience. It revolutionized adult education in the United States as the forerunner of book clubs, study groups and university extension courses. Indeed, by fostering interest in advanced reading, it helped to democratize higher learning.
It’s hard for me to imagine a point when the CLSC was ever in danger of ceasing to exist, but that evidently was the case five decades ago. To one enormous, seismic event—the Great Depression—was added the cumulative impact of trends that, ironically, testified to the far-reaching impact of the CLSC program: more libraries in small communities, book clubs, and book-review services; the extension of adult education; greater opportunities for enrollment in colleges and universities; and the involvement of people in community life and social organizations.
By the mid-Sixties, with CLSC membership and influence in steep decline, Chautauqua seriously considered dropping the program. Wiser heads prevailed, seeing CLSC as still crucial to the way Chautauqua continued to feed a hunger for lifelong learning. This year’s graduating class contained 123 members.
The books on this year’s reading list (e.g., Alice McDermott’s Someone, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania) differ quite a bit from those on the first list in the heart of the Victorian Era (e.g., J.R. Green’s A Short History of the English People, Henry White Warren’s Recreations in Astronomy).
But even amid the digital distractions now available in this community still bearing the marks of another time (e.g., visitors have only a half hour to load and unload their cars at their lodgings), the instinct to continue learning remains stubbornly enduring. Indeed, it seems transmitted across generations, as I saw firsthand in the case of a friend of mine and her mother--both graduates from the CLSC program.