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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Chautauquas


Recently, I had the opportunity to re-visit the original site of the Chautauqua movement in upstate New York. At its height, the Chautauqua movement represented the most influential cultural and intellectual event in the life of more than 12,000 US communities, an annual assembly of lecturers, performers and the occasional minor celebrity celebrating the energy and intellectual curiosity of our country in the years before mass media enabled the near instantaneous spread of ideas and information. Of course, Chautauqua today is quite different from the institution it was in the early 1900’s—a somewhat cloistered community with lovely Victorian homes and cottages—many of which have been converted to guest houses for the hundreds of visitors that spend a week or longer each summer attending the lectures and performances that the Chautauqua foundation sponsors.


Visitors typically stay a week, a month or for those fortunate enough to have acquired a home on the property when it was still affordable, an entire summer experiencing a simulacrum of the post Victorian ideal that inspired this institution. To be sure it is of another generation—few visitors are under the age of 30. Younger visitors tend to come with their families, but the majority are retired or in their so-called ‘golden’ years. It is a lovely place, out of time in its way—designed for leisurely strolls and the quiet contemplation of a way of life that most of us have only read about but never experienced.


Though my stay was brief this time and I barely had time to attend many events, it got me thinking about the extraordinary opportunity that lies fallow in our society. I am referring to the intellectual curiosity and experience of the hundreds of attendees in their 60’s, 70’s and older that are drawn to Chautauqua and similar gatherings across the US. Though their bodies may not be quite as agile as they once were, their appreciation of time is on a different scale from those engaged in the daily business of work and life. I was struck by their engagement, wisdom and accumulated knowledge; seniors in body but not mind. Yet, that prodigious resource serves only to instruct the lake and the trees.


From the moment we enter school we are on an express train bound for life’s stations—children, career, family and friends all a settled business for most of us by the time we reach our 30’s 40’s and 50’s, our most productive years. Retirement, and the dream of leisure and enjoyment is an empty promise for many an unfulfilling forced march for others. A fortunate few who chose a productive intellectual life in the arts, academia, research may remain active and engaged well beyond the norm but regardless of what endeavor occupied the years for the folks attending Chautauqua it is clear they did not stop being interested and interesting people – able to contribute to the many challenges facing us today, even if their working years are behind them.


Now please do not get me wrong. I am not advocating to put more elders to work in government, public service or industry. We have too many geriatric leaders in politics as it is--driven by an intractable resistance to any diminishment of power, money and status. But I am acknowledging that for centuries societies understood the concept of an elder as advisor, a council of experienced minds that could inform and in some instances balance the urgency of youth.

For many of us, those early years in our twenties were about making our way—defining our futures and building families and community. Few of us had the leisure or perhaps the inclination to contemplate the big ideas and big challenges of human existence—but it is precisely that which occupies the thoughts of those no longer preoccupied with the stuff of daily life. While it is wonderful that so many of these minds are afforded the opportunity to bathe in this pool of intellectual curiosity I cannot help but wonder what benefits might accrue if a more purposeful Chautauqua were able to harness the experience, skills and accumulated knowledge of these men and women to address the many ills with which we are presently plagued. There is no doubt that the attendees I met were deeply concerned about the future of our country and the world as a whole, but there is little they can contribute as bystanders.


It’s been said that higher learning is sometimes wasted on the young. Speaking for myself, I genuinely wish I could relive those years today, when I am so much more able to glean the wisdom and build on it than I was 50 years ago. Relegated to the role of spectators those vital minds and wells of experience such as I encountered at Chautauqua are voice lost in the wind. They may fret, may offer hope and prayer for better outcomes than experience has taught them to expect but what they cannot do is offer their minds in a meaningful effort to change those outcomes. That is our loss. In the words of Robert Lowell, “Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense of suicidal absolution that what we intended and failed could never have happened—and must be done better.”


It is time for us to return to the lessons of the past. Let us ensure that those who will inherit the earth are making the decisions in the present and not those whose only desire is to remain in power. Let's ensure limits on term, limits on age in office, and other safeguards to ensure the orderly and timely succession of leadership. But let us also harness the treasure store of wisdom and experience of those vital citizens who are at the peak of their intellectual ability as counsel to the energy of the young. We must not continue to fail and vow to do better, but succeed in the present for we are running out of time to rectify the past.

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