Babcock, Ewalt address education and lifelong learning at Porch Discussion

Education is a central part of Chautauqua Institution’s mission of lifelong learning, and was the topic of discussion at Week Eight’s Trustees Porch Discussion.

At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Trustee Bob Jeffrey welcomed Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, to the porch of the Hultquist Center. Their department encompasses the morning lecture programming, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, Special Studies and youth programs.

To start, Babcock relayed a lesson she learned as a child, one she said she constantly relates back to Chautauqua Institution.

“I learned one time that if you spend an hour — and this reflects my church upbringing; my dad was a United Methodist minister — that if you can learn one really good thing in an hour, it’s worth spending that hour,” Babcock said. “And I have really taken that to heart here at Chautauqua.”

Babcock also briefly discussed 2016’s lecture programming. The overarching theme for 2016 is “What Does It Mean To Be Human?” and the themes for each week are all a part of that question. Lecturers can always tell how smart the audience at Chautauqua is, and she’s proud of how the lecture platform has evolved and the audience’s engagement with it, Babcock said.

Where Ewalt sees lifelong learning the most is in the connections it creates in the community, he said.

“It’s not simply the program — it’s the program being experienced by people coming together who share those values, who are coming for the same things,” Ewalt said.

He’s also seen the Special Studies classroom become a starting point for people unfamiliar with Chautauqua, which he said can be “overwhelming” for newcomers.

“I believe the classroom setting provides a first real sense of community,” Ewalt said. “Because even if you don’t know where everyone’s from and don’t know Chautauqua’s history and traditions, you know you’re in a classroom of people with very similar interests and curiosities. And that can be a great starting point for friendships and connections to this place.”

Babcock and Ewalt fielded attendees’ questions, which focused on the evaluation process for Special Studies courses and the audibility of morning lecturers.

The question about Special Studies evaluations focused on paper versus digital evaluations. It’s a transition year for the evaluation process, and both paper and digital are options, Ewalt said. He and his colleagues are still working out the best way to approach the evaluation process in order to get useful feedback.

The issue of morning lecturers had to do with how well they can be heard. Babcock said speakers are given tips before taking the Amphitheater stage, but some voices and timbres are just harder to hear.

“One of the issues that we have to deal with in a week like this is asking, ‘Do you want someone who really knows what they’re doing, or somebody that you can hear?’ ” Babcock said. “And hopefully we’ll have them both. But those two do not always go together.”

Babcock also had a question of her own for the audience: How has education’s programming had an impact on their lives?

Nancy Fenstermacher said Chautauqua is the place that she can “recharge,” and she’s found it’s the place where “new ideas and new energies” come from for her.

Patricia Hasbach said she’s always envious of people whose families have been coming to Chautauqua for generations — she is a first-generation Chautauquan, but it’s something she’s passed on to her daughter, who now lives in Kenya.

“I know that if she has a family, Chautauqua will be a part of that,” Hasbach said. “But it’s because of the youth program and the Special Studies programs that she attended as a young person that drives her back — she gets come back to the States twice a year — and it always includes Chautauqua.”

Deepak Puri said his experience with the morning and afternoon lectures has been one he values because they represent perspectives that might not be heard elsewhere.

“The kind of speakers that Chautauqua gets — it’s hard to find those kind of viewpoints,” Puri said. “And I really appreciate it. Particularly after 9/11, you were just hearing the same old thing in the mainstream news. So that’s really been a great experience.”

Chautauqua Board of Trustees Porch Discussions cover different topics of interest to the Chautauqua community with speakers from the Chautauqua Board of Trustees and the Institution administration. Porch Discussions occur each week at 9:30 a.m. on the porch of the Hultquist Center.