Chautauqua Movement Essay

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The Chautauqua movement that swept the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was one of the most innovative developments in the history of adult education. Following the philosophy of mainstream liberal arts colleges by offering workshops and lectures in the arts and humanities and eschewing mechanical, technical, and practical education, the movement brought liberal education, culture, and later entertainment to adults in small towns and rural communities. The Chautauqua movement also adapted the new fields of natural and social sciences and modern literature to its academic curriculum and experimented with radical programs that brought together the sacred and secular as a cultural response to a changing world in which science challenged religious authority, labor conflicted with management, women questioned their prescribed roles, and the nation grew progressively more heterogeneous. This entry looks at the history and impact of the movement.

An Educational Movement

The movement began inauspiciously in 1874 when Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and Ohio inventor Lewis Miller conducted a two-week summer institute for Sunday School teachers at Lake Chautauqua in western New York. Two years later, the program was expanded and diversified into an eight-week liberal education experience for adults. The Chautauqua Institution offered courses in the arts, humanities, and sciences and featured lectures by the most renowned authors, explorers, and political leaders, as well as performances by acclaimed musicians and dramatists. Headliners such as Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan, and Charles Dickens attracted huge throngs, and eventually all of the U.S. presidents from Ulysses S. Grant through William McKinley made appearances. Richard T. Ely, Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and others expressed progressive ideas for resolving the conflicts of American life, and William Rainey Harper initiated critical scriptural analysis of the Holy Bible.

The Chautauqua idea spread rapidly, and 292 communities from Maine to Florida and Texas to California formed local independent Chautauquas attempting to copy the Chautauqua Institution by reproducing the program of lectures and entertainment, and to a lesser degree, the academic program of liberal education courses or workshops within a summer resort setting. Although the independent Chautauquas were not affiliated formally with the Chautauqua Institution, many of the speakers, artists, and musicians from the Chautauqua Institution traveled great distances to take lectures and performances across the country. Thousands of adults attended the summer programs of the Chautauqua Institution and the independent Chautauquas.

In addition to the summer programs of the Chautauqua Institution, William Rainey Harper developed a year-round home study program called the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. The Circle was a four-year correspondence course consisting of intensive home reading in history, literature, sociology, and science—the first integrated program of adult education organized in the United States on a national scale. The Circle encouraged learners to form local reading circles to discuss the texts, and between 1878 and 1894 boasted over 225,000 students and over 10,000 local reading circles. The Chautauqua Institution’s leadership conceded that the Circle education was not a college equivalent, but argued that it fostered a “college outlook”: exposure to liberal education for adults.

Its Influence

The Chautauqua Movement reflected a nationwide interest in the professionalization of teaching and popular liberal education for self-improvement. The Chautauqua Institution’s founder, John Vincent, believed in the universal right to knowledge and insisted that continued learning in adulthood was a religious obligation. Vincent’s ideas shaped the movement as a whole, which reflected belief in traditional moral authority, Enlightenment rationalism, and democratization of higher learning for adults, albeit with a Protestant purpose. Maintaining that education could occur throughout adulthood, Vincent believed that experiential learning was the best road to intellectual improvement, an idea that anticipated philosophies prevalent a half century later.

The Chautauqua Institution’s and movement’s detractors, such as philosopher William James and English author Rudyard Kipling, dismissed the brief summer sessions, roundtables, and public lectures as academically superficial. However, even critics who questioned the course quality did not challenge the scholarly credentials of its lecturers. Furthermore, lower and middle-class women, who made up the majority of the Chautauquas’ learners, were largely excluded from higher education: the residential Chautauquas and the Circle provided a coherent training ground for them at an affordable price.

The influence of the Chautauqua Institution and independent Chautauquas declined steeply during the early twentieth century because of the emergence of “circuit” or “tent” Chautauquas that traveled from town to town. Because of more affordable ticket prices, they soon ran most of the independent Chautauquas out of business. However, because tent chautauquas were purely commercial ventures, they changed the entire face of the movement from “education with entertainment” to “entertainment with or without education.” At its peak in the mid-1920s, circuit Chautauqua performers and lecturers appeared in more than 10,000 communities in forty-five states to audiences totaling 45 million people. Even so, the tent Chautauquas served as an opportunity for rural communities to come together to watch musicians and performers that they would never have seen otherwise.

The movement died out by 1932 because of two significant factors. The spread of automobiles, radios, and motion pictures made entertainment and education more accessible. Further, the onset of the Depression made even tent Chautauquas economically impossible for organizers and audiences.

The national influence of the Chautauqua Movement on higher and adult education was immense. Under the direction of John Vincent and William Rainey Harper, the Chautauqua Institution pioneered summer sessions, correspondence courses, extension services, and the university press. Harper, as the first president of the University of Chicago, transmitted these and other Chautauquan innovations that influenced American higher education as a whole. While now less national in scope, the Chautauqua Institution still offers a thriving eight-week summer program of lectures, arts, and music and serves as a respected center for adult education and Christian religion.


  1. Johnson, R. L. (2001). “Dancing mothers”: The Chautauqua movement in twentieth-century American popular culture. American Studies International, 39(2), 53–70.
  2. Scott, J. C. (2005). The Chautauqua vision of liberal education. History of Education, 34(1), 41–59.
  3. Vincent, J. H. (1975). The Chautauqua movement [Reprint]. North Stratford, NH: Ayer. (Original work published 1886)

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