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The Philosophy of Chautauqua

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What is Chautauqa?

Chautauqua is a discussion group that meets every other Wednesday in the University of Northern Colorado’s Honors Lounge to pontificate upon philosophy, current events, literature, or any matter that invites scrutiny and intellectual dialogue. The program offers students an opportunity to congregate with individuals who want to participate in a Socratic-like seminar and learn from each other. Of course, Chautauqua meetings take place in a relaxed atmosphere where no one is pressured to speak, where all ideas are welcome, and where, hopefully, everyone leaves enlightened and refreshed, not just from the content of the discussion but from the pleasure of one one another’s company.

How did Chautauqua come about?

Chautauqua originated out of an Honors Seminar course that was unofficially continued beyond the end of the semester. The students who were in the class, having gained so much from the quality of the dialogue held within the seminar, wanted to sustain the experience. And, thus, Chautauqua began. Most people wonder where the term “Chautauqua” came from. Actually, it originates, at least for us, in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. He uses the word to describe his inquiry into the notion of quality and the best way to visualize the world. Regarding his Chautauqua Pirsig states,

“In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. ‘What’s new?’ in an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?,’ a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and ‘best’ was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for (7-8).”

The Aim of Chautauqua

Like Pirsig’s Chautauqua, our own seeks to find what is best in all areas of thought. Merely discussing for discussion’s sake is a waste of one’s time and a waste one’s intellect. Although a consensus may not be reached, either because an issue is simply too complex or because what is best in regard to that issue is different for each person, the time spent in a Chautauqua is, at the very least, intended to further one’s intellectual and, possibly emotional, maturity on a given subject.

The fact that Chautauqua is a fairly relaxed activity should be reiterated. Obviously, the discussion is not structured like a class. If it were, who would attend? The format of discussion, the readings, and the subject matter are designed to be easy-going yet compelling. It is our hope that nobody would be detracted from attending a Chautauqua for fear that it resemble the classroom too closely. Actually, the spontaneity of our dialogue and the welcoming atmosphere proves a good escape from the demands of class. Just come and see, okay?

Still, coming to Chautauqua is an opportunity to plug into the more intellectual community at UNC, a chance to spend time with people who what to have an intelligent dialogue; to transcend the superficial, daily gossip, news, and conversation that, while good in moderation, unfortunately prevails. Henry David Thoreau, in his essay, Life Without Principle, talks about this phenomenon and the need to go beyond it:

“Shall the mind be a public arena where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table are chiefly discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself--an hypethral temple, consecrated to the service of the gods? I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those which are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate. Such is, for the most part, the news in newspapers and conversation. It is important to preserve the mind’s chastity in this respect...

It is so hard to forget what is worse than useless to remember! If I am to be a thoroughfare, I prefer that it be of the mountain brooks, the Parnassian streams, and not the town sewers. There is inspiration, that gossip which comes to the ear of the attentive mind from the courts of heaven. There is [also] the profane and stale revelation of the barroom and the police court. The same ear is fitted to receive both communications. Only the character of the hearer determines to which it shall be open, and to which closed. I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality...

If we have thus desecrated ourselves--as who has not?--the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a [temple] of the mind.”

It is to these ends that Chautauqua is largely devoted: to bypass the world of trivialities and to achieve inspiration, knowledge, or edification worthy of, as Thoreau would say, one’s sacred mind.

Through the captivating discussions, the friendly people, and the sense of enlightenment and accomplishment felt at the end of each meeting, Chautauqa provides a great venue for any student, honors or not, any professor, or anyone else who, every other Wednesday, feels that “some channel deepening seems called for.”

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