Babcock shares vision of lifelong learning at porch discussion

Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Chautauqua Institution trustee Jack McCredie poses a question to Sherra Babcock, Chautauqua Institution vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, during last Wednesday’s Trustees Porch Discussion at the Hultquist Center.

Sherra Babcock, Chautauqua Institution vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education,  provided an overview of the Institution’s education and youth programs and her vision for lifelong learning at Chautauqua in a Trustees Porch Discussion titled “Lifelong Learning —Chautauqua’s Educational Impact” on Wednesday at the Hultquist Center.

The first responsibility of the Department of Education and Youth Services, Babcock said, is selecting the morning lecture themes of each week of the season.

In terms of attracting well-known lecturers who usually speak at much larger venues in more populated cities, Babcock said, “We depend a lot on our hospitality, our reputation [and] the fact that Chautauqua is on the bucket list of many people who are speakers.”

The Department of Education’s first priority in terms of the morning lecture platform is to provide an educational opportunity for Chautauquans to broaden their scope of knowledge, Babcock said. The second priority is to provide balance by inviting speakers who may hold contrasting opinions.

The weekly themes are chosen 18 months in advance, she said, and the department will begin to look at 2015 themes shortly after the end of this season. Typically, they see anywhere between 100 and 200 theme ideas each year, some of which are dependent on individual speakers.

The second aspect of the department’s responsibilities is typically known as continuing education, known at Chautauqua as the Special Studies program, she said. The types of classes offered cover a wide range, as the department wishes to appeal to multiple generations.

Next, Babcock referenced the Children’s School, Boys’ and Girls’ Club, Pier Club and Youth Activities Center. The Department of Education considers all of these programs essential to the overall purpose of youth education.

“These are the opportunities where children learn to socialize,” she said.

Babcock’s vision is of a family sitting around the dinner table with each member contributing to the conversation — even the youngest of children.

The next component of the department, literary arts, can be broken up into three distinct sections: The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the Chautauqua Writers’ Center and The Chautauqua Prize.

At one time, the CLSC was a reading course for people who were not able to be formally educated, Babcock said. Today, the organization is more symbolic. The CLSC chooses at least nine pieces of literature each season and invites the authors to the grounds to share their work.

The Writers’ Center, which was founded by a group of Chautauquans who simply enjoyed writing, is celebrating its 25th year this season.

The Chautauqua Prize is in its second year, having been awarded in 2013 to Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a nonfiction work about a photographer who made it his life goal to photograph all of the Western Native American tribes before they disappeared. Winners receive a $7,500 cash prize and a one-week stay at Chautauqua, Babock said.

The final two responsibilities of the Department of Education are Smith Memorial Library and the Chautauqua Institution Archives.

The library provides resources for guests on the Institution grounds, and the Archives preserve Chautauqua’s history for guests of the future.

Finally, Babcock spoke of an outgrowth of the CLSC program, the CLSC in Zimbabwe program. Sharon Hudson-Dean, a career public diplomacy foreign service officer, approached the department three years ago with an idea. After her first travels to Zimbabwe, she saw an opportunity to bring together different political parties in the country who were struggling to get along.

Knowing Zimbabwe is a reading culture — the English literacy rate there is higher than in the United States — Dean thought offering a book club could unite people of different political affiliations. Her idea was to invite a group of senior leaders from the Zimbabwe government and also a younger group of people they saw as “rising stars,” Babcock said.

The group applied for a grant for innovations in diplomacy and started meeting every two months to read CLSC selections. So far, there have been 35 graduates from the program. The Department of Education is continuing to send old CLSC books to libraries in Zimbabwe so that other people can start reading the books, too.