Education circus

Tents appear outside a town in early 20th century rural United States. It’s not the circus, it’s the circuit chautauqua: teachers, preachers, musicians, and orators, ready to bring education and religion to the masses.

Chautauqua
Clay Center Times / Public domain

The first chautauqua began next to Chautauqua Lake, New York, in 1874. It was a combination of summer camp, bible study, and lecture hall. This so-called “Mother Chautauqua” spawned a whole cadre of imitators throughout the United States, each one with a slightly different flavour but essentially operating the same way. Religion, political activism, music, and educational lectures were the big highlights.

In 1904, a couple of entrepreneurs thought the thoughts that entrepreneurs everywhere have: how can we make money off this? Their solution was to create travelling chautauquas that would move from town to town like a circus, but offering edification instead of spectacle.

These circuit chautauquas (also known as tent chautauquas) were wildly successful – within two decades they spread across the entire country and may have hosted as many as 45 million attendees. The Great Depression mostly killed them off, but not before they left an indelible mark on adult and distance education in the United States, and indeed on the character of the United States.

Take, for example, the Baptist minister and circuit chautauqua mainstay Russell Conwell. He gave a famous speech titled “Acres of Diamonds” that said everyone could get rich if only they’d work hard, and that it was sinful to do otherwise:

I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich. How many of my pious brethren say to me, “Do you, a Christian minister, spend your time going up and down the country advising young people to get rich, to get money?” “Yes, of course I do.” They say, “Isn’t that awful! Why don’t you preach the gospel instead of preaching about man’s making money?” “Because to make money honestly is to preach the gospel.” That is the reason.

Source: Acres of Diamonds

Conwell gave this speech more than six thousand times. Six thousand! If he gave the speech three times a day, every day, it would have taken him five and a half years to get to that total. It was intended as inspirational, but was one of the major contributors to the 20th century Prosperity Gospel movement, which I find… less than inspirational?

[Thanks to an anonymous reader for suggesting this topic.]

One Reply to “Education circus”

  1. Wow, I know a bit about the history of the American circus but I hadn’t come across chautauquas before. It must have been a strange life for those who travelled along. Thanks for sharing.

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