Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Nature of Philopolis, pt. 2

Last week, I posted part one of my Philopolis discussion. Here is part two.

            Historically first in line is Chautauqua. Before my friend Bruce told me about this event, I had never heard of it (though obviously it’s a real thing because my spell-check doesn’t scream at it with red, squiggly lines). Luckily, PBS does documentaries on all kinds of things that I’ve never heard of, so I was able to gather some background intel. Chautauqua was founded in the late 19th century in the US as a place to instruct Sunday School teachers. It was founded on the idea that an educated public is key to the health of democracy, and the idea that churches had an important role to play in this. In order for the church to fulfill this role, the Sunday School teachers needed to be educated enough to educate their flocks, and Chautauqua aimed at just this kind of learning. It was really Bildung in the old German sense: not just an education, but a formation, an acculturation.
            Chautauqua ran on the idea of learning as a lifelong pursuit, and offered exposure to the fine arts, discussion of current events, ideas in the arts and sciences, and in religion, as well as incorporating a recreation component. It was basically a summer camp where people could get away without feeling guilty that they were wasting their time because they were learning while they were there. The original facility was installed on the edge of Chautauqua lake in the state of New York, but its immense popularity eventually lead to correspondence courses, installations popping up all over North America, as well as the inauguration of a traveling circuit, like a circus of intellectuals and artists.
            What drove Chautauqua? It responded mostly to three needs: the need for a place to take a “vacation” without the guilt of a vacation; the need for information and intellectual exposure in the United States, particularly in the rural areas where access to such things was greatly restricted. Interestingly, this movement showed that “infotainment” need not be totally vicious. To pass off entertainment as information, as we see in the sensationalist news media today, is deadly to our democratic engagement. But to pass off information as entertainment is just the reverse: what a virtuous idea! And what a biting criticism of our education system that we scoff at the very possibility of learning as entertaining and enjoyable.
            So what killed the movement, then, if it was so big? The pressures of the Great Depression didn’t help anything, as the network had greater and greater trouble supporting itself financially and had to pare back its offerings, but the deathblow was struck by the introduction of radio (and television) into the mass market. The greatest need that pushed Chautauqua was the relative scarcity of access to information in rural areas, where universities and libraries were difficult to access. But radio broadcast changed all of that by providing access to information through a much cheaper distribution medium. Moving people around from town to town is costly, especially relative to the cost of moving some electrons. By the end of the Second World War, Chautauqua was passé, and only the original installation in New York state is left as a commemorative to the movement. (It still offers a whole summer worth of activities, and actually has a whole town that it runs somewhat like a summer camp.)
            Radio, television and movies made the dissemination of information and entertainment (as an outlet for one’s leisure time) much easier to access. Are these not still around? Do these not still work against the possibility of offering something like Chautauqua? Make no mistake, there are definite parallels to the festival of philosophy, and we need to be aware of the forces that would undercut our relevance and our ability to grow. Radio and television definitely make market penetration more difficult, but we can offer something that they can’t: interactivity. Radio and television disseminate; they are not participatory. That’s where Philopolis has the upper hand in this battle.

Here is the third part.

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