Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hudson River Lyceum Lectures

Are you interested in innovative ideas? Do you seek creative and fresh thought that might cause you to consider the world around you a bit differently? Are you tired of being fed filtered news and information? Do you care about your country and its future? If you answered yes to any of these questions, than you are not alone. 

Fortunately for you a new lecture series has been organized which will serve as a forum to hear engaging speakers talk about topics of general interest in addition to important public policy issues. The lecture series, known as  Hudson River Lyceum (HRL), has been created for everyone who feels that education doesn’t end with formal schooling but rather is a life long endeavor. It is designed to encourage you, your friends, neighbors and fellow citizens to gather in a public setting to hear a real live speaker. This simple act of community seems to be disappearing from the scene as a plethora of various media vies for our attention. 

You may be excused if the word lyceum conjures up an image of a movie theater, (it does have an association with entertainment) but it is actually a very old word whose roots go back to ancient Greece. Originally it was a place of learning famous for it’s association with Aristotle and it’s importance in the development of western science and philosophy. In this country, lyceums have a rich history and are regarded as one of the earliest instruments for the diffusion of general education to arise. The lyceum was a purely small town institution which was designed to provide opportunities to people of all ages to study history, art, science and hear lectures on public issues. 

The first lyceum was established by Josiah Holbrook in 1826. Within a few short years the idea spread over most of New England and the northeast, extending to the midwest and some southern states.  New York became a leader in the lyceum movement, the first one being formed in Troy and establishing the first state lyceum in the country in 1831. Along with other voluntary organizations such as “mechanics institutes” lyceums helped in the founding of both public and private libraries. At it’s peak there were over three thousand lyceums in the United States.  

The lyceum became nineteenth century America’s version of a inexpensive night out. For a very modest price a family could get a subscription to a lyceum which entitled them to courses, lectures and entertainment. Part of it’s original mission was the application of the latest scientific advances to the problems ordinary people confronted. Practical courses were offered to farmers on subjects like soil depletion, and there were offerings for tradesman and merchants. A popular form of entertainment for a family was to diagram sentences, if you can believe it! Some of the most notable personalities of the time from poets and philosophers, writers, orators and lecturers, and entertainers traveled what was known as the “lyceum circuit.”  Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Jenny Lind and even Abraham Lincoln spoke at lyceums.

Closer to home there were lyceums in Kingston, known as the Rondout Lyceum and also at Saugerties. In 1855 the Saugerties Lyceum held a lecture given by Horace Greeley, one of the more in demand personalities on the “lyceum circuit.” At the time, Greeley was the most influential newspaper editor in the country. Often remembered today for his advice to his readers to “go west young man, go west,” Greeley was actually much more. A rather eccentric fellow, which was noted at length in the newspaper account of his lecture, Greeley none the less impressed his audience. A strong advocate for reform he championed the cause of women’s rights, temperance, and anti-slavery.

The lyceum movement was a quintessentially American phenomenon. A shining example of a free citizenry filling a need by forming voluntary associations. It is hoped that this new lecture series will initiate a dialog on public issues that will match the vibrancy of the original lyceums in their heyday. The inaugural lecture, which will be free and open to the public will take place in the very near future with a very special guest. Further details as to the time and venue to be announced shortly so stay tuned! 

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