The History of the Lyceum Movement

The American Lyceum Movement designates a period of educational reform from around 1830 until a few years after the Civil war. It was inspired by the Mechanics Institutes set up in England as a means of training apprentices into the rapidly advancing technologies of the industrial revolution. New Englanders, with their developing mills and other industries in rural villages, began to see the importance of standardizing and making current the state of knowledge about the industrial arts. Local communities began to form independent learning centers to both promote the latest innovation but also to bring general culture to the populace. They called these centers of learning “Lyceums” after Aristotle’s famous Lyceum in Athens.

The Lyceums in New England were progressive democratic institutions. No one was barred from membership. Membership dues were very inexpensive and women and people of color were admitted. It was a place in which the entire community could gather to discuss new ideas and build consensus about local issues. Classes would include literature, philosophy, art appreciation, and the current science of the day. The Lyceums became the hosts for the Transcendentalist lecture circuit as well as the proving ground for the abolitionists and early feminists. Though there was the occasional heated political debate, most of the classes were designed to offer continuing education in many enriching aspects of life. Without television, films, radio or the Internet, the residents of rural communities were grateful for the connection to broader culture. The movement was instrumental in starting many local public libraries and public schools and colleges.

By the late 1850’s, the animosity aroused by a divided nation on the question of slavery, created too much tension in the Lyceums. The threat of violence and rioting discouraged residents from continuing their membership. After the Civil War, the Lyceums changed their focus to one of vaudeville and lighter musical reviews and the intellectual momentum was lost. It was picked up by the Chautauqua Movement, which held concerts and classes in one setting, Lake Chautauqua, New York, in the summer months.

The New Orleans Lyceum of today seeks to revive the original intent of the Lyceum Movement by providing independent community education around town, not because we have too little access to media but because we have too much. Now it is almost a radical idea to meet face to face in real time to discuss issues and learn together outside of formal educational settings and the Internet.  The need to be in real contact with others and share in respectful conversation is generally felt in our over-technologized world. New Orleans, with its long history of gracious coffee houses and taverns is a great place for the new Lyceum to be. Learning that is slowed down and deep, learning that is collective, learning that is interactive and fun – that is what the Lyceum is about today.