Lyceum Movement and Adult Education
Lyceum Movement and Adult Education
Filling the Gaps. While some forms of adult education had always existed in the United States, the early nineteenth century was remarkable for the dramatic expansion in the number of avenues that a person with a thirst for knowledge could travel. New learning options and sources of information for an increasingly literate public compensated to some degree for the inadequacy of traditional educational institutions. Magazines flourished, and while most folded after a short life, a few endured. The North American Review, founded in 1815, was one of the most popular and longest-lived periodicals of the period. Millions of women devotedly read Godey’s Lady’s Book, which began publishing in 1830 and survived until 1898. Adults eager to learn also supported the burgeoning business of house-to-house book peddling. Sales boomed for American novels, European classics, advice books, theological texts, and more. Samuel Griswold Goodrich, a publisher from 1816 until his death in 1860, estimated that yearly book sales reached $12.5 million by 1850. At a time when ordinary works of fiction cost anywhere from two dollars to as low as twenty-five cents, this figure represented a staggering quantity of books. Booksellers, private subscription libraries, and tax-supported public libraries (which first appeared in numbers in the 1830s) all tried to fill America’s hunger for reading. But self-instruction was not limited to reading. In this era of intense didacticism there were also societies, associations, and institutes of every sort at which programs of lectures and discussions took place.
PUBLIC LIBRARY MOVEMENT
At a time when formal institutions of higher education rarely touched the lives of most Americans, the spread of knowledge among all classes was promoted through a variety of public and commercial ventures. One of the most important means of satisfying the growing demand for knowledge from an increasingly literate public was the public library. By 1830 there existed several varieties of private libraries, such as apprentices’ libraries, subscription libraries, and lyceum libraries. More enduring in the long run, however, were the free public libraries that began to appear in Boston and other New England towns in the 1830s. In 1849 New Hampshire passed the first law authorizing tax-supported libraries on a statewide basis. Massachusetts followed suit within two years. Like the public school crusade, the public library movement epitomized the era’s boundless faith in public institutions as agents of self-improvement and the perfection of society.
Lyceums. The most widely known and successful form of popular adult education during the period was the American Lyceum. The organization was founded in 1826 by Josiah Holbrook, a wealthy Connecticut farmer turned amateur scientist, and consisted of local groups that sponsored public lectures on various topics. Holbrook established the first lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts, called Millbury Lyceum No. 1, Branch of the American Lyceum. His vision in 1826 was “to establish on a uniform plan, in every town and village, a society for mutual improvement.” Within months, as Holbrook’s enthusiasm spread to neighboring counties, a dozen nearby villages followed Millbury’s lead. Lyceums developed
quickly, and in 1831 organizers formed a National Lyceum with a constitution that proposed “the advancement of education” and “the general diffusion of knowledge.” By 1840 thirty-five hundred towns had lyceums. Although most of these local groups were not particularly large, memberships of two and three hundred were not uncommon, and the Salem Lyceum in Massachusetts reportedly contained some twelve hundred members. Although the lyceum movement spread rapidly, it did not spread evenly. Thriving best in New England and the cities of the Middle Atlantic states, lyceum fever was less contagious among the scattered population of the Midwest while the South remained almost immune. Flourishing during the late 1820s and throughout the 1830s, excitement and interest in lyceums began to fade shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. Yet the lyceum mania of the 1820s and 1830s would form the foundation for a similar popular lecturing phenomenon later in the century, the Chautauqua movement.
Learned Lecturers. Although the lyceums organized many local activities and events, the main focus of the program came to be the public lecture. Lyceum goers, including professional men, merchants, farmers, artisans, and a large number of middle-class women, demanded learning that was informative, enjoyable, and useful. To meet this demand lyceums presented lectures on a wide variety of subjects. In 1838, for example, topics at the lyceum in Salem, Massachusetts, included “The Character and Customs of North American Indians,” “Causes of the American Revolution,” “Common School Education,” “The Legal Rights of Women,” and “The Sources of National Wealth.” The lyceum at Concord, Massachusetts, alone sponsored some 784 lectures, 105 debates, and 14 concerts during its first few years of existence. Lyceum debates were as wide ranging and lively as the lectures and covered such issues as the immortality of the soul, imprisonment for debt, and the desirability of educating women. The speakers were as diverse as the topics and prior to 1840 often consisted of ambitious locals who wished to show off their learning before appreciative neighbors. At the Concord lyceum, for example, local residents presented 301 of 784 lectures; the January 1838 address at the Young Men’s Lyceum Association of Springfield, Illinois, was given by an obscure local state legislator and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. In time, however, audiences began to demand men of reputation, eloquence, and presence who could grab and hold their attention. Gradually there emerged a few nationally known lecturers who traveled throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states, giving talks on the lyceum circuit. Yankee philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was far and away the most popular literary lecturer out of a group that included such prominent figures as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Noah Webster, and Calvin Stowe. Reformers such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard were also frequent lyceum speakers. From the onset of the lyceum movement Holbrook had made public education one of its chief considerations, and Mann, Barnard, and others used the lyceum stage to galvanize support for common school systems in state after state.