Today on Project Gutenberg #29

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Chautauquan, Vol. V. February 1885 by various authors

Alright, we’ve got to start this one by defining what a Chautauqua is for the sake of all you non-Americans. And for the Americans here too, let’s be honest. Chautauqua was a unique form of entertainment and education that began in the United States and lasted from the 1870s to the mid-1920s. The name comes from Chautauqua Lake in western New York, where the first example of the movement was founded. But what is it, exactly? Basically a more sophisticated form of summer camp. Adults and kids alike could take classes and hear lectures on a variety of subjects: art, science, music, religion, etc. In addition to permanent institutions, “circuit” Chautauquas would travel around the country in the same manner as a circus or carnival. While those don’t exist anymore, a few of the permanent Chautauquas still do.

The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, or CLSC, also still exists, much to my surprise. Founded in 1878 as part of the Chautauqua Institution in New York, it’s basically a book club designed to promote self-education and “to open the college world to persons unable to attend higher institutions of learning,” as they say in this PDF from their website. The Chautauquan is (or was, I can’t tell) the official newsletter for the institution and also a way to send out additional “required readings.”

The “required readings” for the month of February are the first things you see when you open up the magazine. Aside from a few Bible verses, which are listed as “Sunday Readings,” most of these first few articles are science-based. There’s a collection of facts about hydrocarbons and the role of fire in chemistry; the origins of tea, coffee and chocolate and how making them is essentially a chemical experiment that you can perfect with scientific knowledge; an excerpt by Thomas Huxley on scientific observation and reason. And that’s just a few of them.

Outside of the required readings, the articles have a greater focus on culture and history. You can, for example, read about the history of New Orleans or how the Smithsonian Institution was founded in Washington DC. There’s also some poetry here too, if you need a break from all the non-fiction. I’m particularly interested in an article written by a senator from Illinois talking about illiteracy rates across the country and the value of educating the American people.

The last section of the magazine shows the CLSC’s efforts to provide a uniform curriculum for its various chapters. It includes a schedule for the required readings spread out over the whole month, as well as schedules for weekly in-person meetings. That way, anyone who has the newsletter and the required books can follow along for the whole month.

Not sure I’d recommend this one to the casual reader, but it’s interesting as an educational tool, especially as an example of nineteenth-century education. Teachers and other people with an interest in education might therefore find it worth looking at. In a way, it’s a rudimentary form of distance learning, and with the new school year bearing down on us in the ongoing pandemic, good distance learning plans are about to be more vital than ever.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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