Babcock talks Chautauqua’s ‘lasting educational impact’ at porch discussion

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, leads the Trustees Porch Discussion Wednesday at the Hultquist Center.

When Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874, it became enshrined in principles of education and self-improvement. Its founders were nine years out of the Civil War and immersed in the turbulence of Reconstruction, abolition and political unrest — but instead of using their leisure time to relax, the forefathers of Chautauqua decided to form a vacation community that nurtured intellectual stimulation.

Today, 140 years later, Chautauqua still stands for those very values, said Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. Babcock led the Trustees Porch Discussion on Wednesday morning at the Hultquist Center, inviting approximately 25 community members to engage in dialogue about “Lifelong Learning: Chautauqua’s Educational Impact.”

“The idea that education benefits our society goes all the way back to our foundation,” Babcock said. “The notion that we can learn from each other is the Chautauqua idea. But sometimes we can get into the idea of ‘my’ Chautauqua, and forget about all the offerings that are available here.”

Babcock cited many of Chautauqua’s adult educational opportunities, including morning lectures, Special Studies, library events, the archives, the Heritage Lecture Series and literary offerings. She focused not only on how these events can enrich the lives of Chautauquans, but on how they can reach beyond Chautauqua’s gates and transform the experiences of others.

One example Babcock shared with Wednesday’s audience was the impact Chautauqua had on Nader Bakkar, an Egyptian who spoke during the morning lecture series with Jon Alterman in Week Four. According to Babcock, Nader admitted that he was originally resistant to the idea of visiting Chautauqua. By the time he left, however, he felt he had learned about respect and tolerance from Chautauqua’s community and was eager to implement those values in his own life and culture.

“He left saying he had a different understanding of political discourse from his time at Chautauqua,” Babcock said. “We never know what the impact may be from time spent at Chautauqua. We may have planted seeds that will bear fruit somewhere else — even if we never know it.”

Babcock then opened up the floor for questions regarding Chautauqua’s lasting educational impacts.

“How is Chautauqua partnering with colleges?” began Carol Rufener, a Chautauquan of 37 years. She said she wanted to know if Chautauqua offered any sort of programs that provide collegiate students with academic credits.

Babcock said that such partnerships really have to be initiated by universities, since they are the institutions that determine what counts as credit-bearing study. She did note that the Institution frequently welcomes university students for informal studies, such as a group of six students from Allegheny College who were on the grounds for Week Eight this summer. For now, however, Babcock said that Chautauqua’s studies are open to those who have a passion for learning, not those who seeking some sort of credit for doing so.

Several community members also asked Babcock to speak on the selection of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle books, as well as The Chautauqua Prize. Babcock said that the CLSC only chooses books whose authors are capable of visiting Chautauqua and speaking. Other than that, she said the CLSC looks for novels with a wide and diverse range of authors, genres and themes.

“It’s a little bit like making a sausage,” Babcock said of the selection process. “Or putting a puzzle together.”

As for The Chautauqua Prize — a $7,500 award to the author of a recent work of fiction or literary nonfiction that an anonymous jury feels will contribute to  the literary canon and still be an accessible read — Babcock said the prize coordinators are always looking for readers. These readers typically must have a professional literary background and be able to read about six to eight entries in roughly a three-month time span, in order to give feedback to the jury. This year, there were 155 entries in The Chautauqua Prize competition, a figure that grew significantly from last year, Babcock said.

One of the final questions of the meeting was asked by Chautauquan Jim Barnes, who wanted to know how programming — specifically, how the selection of weekly themes — worked.

Babcock said the lecture committee takes Chautauquans’ opinions into account, usually working a minimum of 18 months ahead in terms of finalizing weekly themes. Sometimes, they will partner with external organizations, such as this summer’s Week Four, which was brought to Chautauqua by Colonial Williamsburg. The administration considered 179 weekly themes for the 2015 season alone, Babcock said.

“We don’t choose and take on themes that we don’t think we can do,” Babcock said.

The Chautauqua Institutution Board of Trustees will close the 2014 season of porch discussions next Wednesday. President Tom Becker will present the summer’s final theme, “Looking Ahead to the 2015 Season.”