Wednesday, September 21, 2011

ZAMM (part 3) - Chautauqua, then and now

Part 3 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM):

I have considered Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of my favorite books of all time - next to the Bible.

During a motorcycle trip from Minnesota to the West Coast, the narrator ascends to the heights of esoteric philosophy down to the practical wisdom of motorcycle maintenance.

Instead of asking the tired question - What's new?

He asks - What's best?

After re-reading the book this summer, I chose to blog about many of the ideas presented in this inquiry into values. Here is one of them.


That is one of the words that Pirsig grapples with to capture the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual journey he has laid out in his work.

The term originated in 1874. In western New York, the shores of Chautauqua Lake became the meeting place to educate Sunday School teachers during the summer break. These meetings blossomed into a national movement of adult education. The concept took legs as traveling tent-shows popped up across the country where people could hear popular talks and exchange ideas.

Theodore Roosevelt called this meeting

"the most American thing in America."

(check out - What was Chautauqua.)

The Death of Chautauqua?

The movement roared into the 20th century, but lost steam by the 1930s as radio, movies, then later TV pushed it aside.  How more so has the mass media in the 21st century crowded out deep and personal discussions where we have in addition to radio, TV, movies, all of the modern marvels of the 24/7 cable news cycle, internet, various types social media, various gadgets such as smart phones, iPads, etc.

As Pirsig rues in his "Chautauqua "  - though the stream of information runs broader and faster, it doesn't seem to run very deep.

Prequel to Chautauqua

Let's go back to the world's best seller of all times - the Bible, which records an earlier form of Chautauqua.

The Law of Moses prescribed a day off for rest (Exodus 20:8-11) offering an opportunity to slow down from the tyranny of the immediate and meditate on the spiritual and deeper meaning of life.  And this tradition has been Christianized and carried on well into the 20th century as many denominations have set aside Sundays as the "Lord's Day" for worship and spiritual reflection.  In the past, most businesses were closed.  People slowed down - at least for a day - to be with family and rest from their usual labors.

Yet our fast paced 21st century sophistication can be likened to St. Paul's encounter in Athens with the intelligentsia of the first century, who hung out with itching ears to hear the latest things. (Acts 17:16-34)

What's new? 

The philosophers wanted to know when they heard of Paul's preaching of some new foreign gods. And Paul told them ....

What's best!

He declared unto them the Unknown God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures and preached the Gospel. Then the listeners scoffed when they heard of the resurrection. They were already jaded and ready to move on to the next new thing - but not the best thing.

Resurrection of Chautauqua

In spite of our fickleness and appetite for instant gratification, the Chautauqua movement lives on in the place it all began. Here is their website for talks in this fast and fickle 21st century - Chautauqua Institution.  Below is a short video about the movement that has carried on for more than 135 years.

21st century vitual Chautauqua

Though many may not visit the Chautauqua Institution, we have the tools to create right one where we are at. The internet can be a magnificent tool when the keyboard meets the hands of those with a heart ready for learning.

Access to the internet can be one of the greatest tools for democratization on the planet.  We can search for the best teachers who put themselves out there in cyberspace. Websites, blogs, social media can draw us into the discussion like many of these topics discussed in the original Chautauqua movement and so many more topics opened up in this amazing age.

How broad, wide, and deep we wish to go? What do we wish to learn? It's up to us. And that can be a challenging, yet magnificent thing.

Question:  What sites are a source for your private Chautauqua?

More articles in this series:

ZAMM (part 1) - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

ZAMM (part 2) - Journey through Life

Photo from Wikipedia: Chautauqua Stamp

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