Lyceum Movement Essay

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Taking its name from Aristotle’s Lyceum school for the youth of Athens, the lyceum movement in the United States mobilized support for popular adult education in the United States and during its most active years—the 1830s to the 1860s—played an important role in promoting public schools, libraries, and museums. Growing from the Enlightenment ideal of education for the general population, lyceums disseminated information on the arts, literature, sciences, history, public affairs, and other sorts of “useful knowledge” via lectures and concerts, scientific demonstrations and dramatic performances, and participation in debates and discussion groups.

Josiah Holbrook, a traveling lecturer and teacher, founded the first American lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts, in 1826. Local lyceums sprang up so rapidly following Holbrook’s model that by 1834, there were approximately 3,000 active lyceum associations in the Northeast and Midwest. They organized as far south as Florida and as far west as Detroit. Lyceum activity never caught on with the same fervor in the South, however, because southern aristocrats feared that educating poor Whites and slaves would damage the economy.

Lyceum speakers were initially members of the local communities, but by 1840, professional institutions emerged that hired and promoted freelance lecturers to travel the lyceum circuit. Several New England Transcendentalists were closely and actively associated with the lyceums, which were seen as a powerful medium for communicating Transcendental philosophy to parts of the country outside New England. Lectures presented by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, for instance, were honed on the lyceum circuit, then later revised for publication. Many of the best known artists, writers, politicians, and journalists of the day appeared as lyceum speakers, including Frederick Douglass, Daniel Webster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln, Wendell Phillips, Frances Wright, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and Charles Dickens. Several lyceums were established for particular parts of the public such as women, seamen, and teachers.

The momentum of the movement was spent by the onset of the Civil War in 1861, and most lyceum activity immediately ceased. After the war, lyceums reemerged, but they were of a fundamentally different character from their antebellum counterparts. Although they were still used for speeches by notable public figures, the educational influence of the lyceums waned as they were used increasingly as a venue for traveling musicians and other entertainers, as well as vaudeville and minstrel shows. When the first continental railway was completed in 1869, these traveling performers also went West.

Only a handful of lyceums lasted into the early 1900s, but the legacy of bringing education to the general public through contact with great speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, and specialists of the day was carried on in the Chautauqua movement of the 1870s and lyceums built upon America’s continuing interest in adult education and lifelong learning.

Bibliography:

  1. Bode, C. (1950). The American lyceum: Town meeting of the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Ray, A. G. (2005). The lyceum and public culture in the nineteenth-century United States. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

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