Finding Connections: Chatauqua meets Williamsburg

The Revolutionary City finds resonance and relevance across the country and around the world in a vibrant partnership with the Chautauqua Institution of New York. “We walk in the same intellectual waters,” says Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Colin Campbell in this interview with Chautauqua’s President Tom Becker.

Learn more: The Chautauqua Institution


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today we welcome the leaders of two great institutions who have found new ways to connect past and present with their partnership. Joining me now in the studio are Colin Campbell, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Tom Becker, President of the Chautauqua Institution. Thank you both for being here today.

Becker/Campbell: Thank you, Harmony. Thank you Harmony, good to be here.

Harmony: Well Tom, since you’re our guest and you’re the institution we’re less familiar with or you represent the institution we’re less familiar with, tell us a little bit about Chautauqua, their mission and what they do so we can understand the partnership that comes about with Colonial Williamsburg.

Becker: Certainly. We were founded in 1874, so we’ve been at our work for 140 years; 100 years after the revolution, a decade, within a decade of the end of the Civil War. It’s interesting to think about those two events and the creation of this institution which was really about at a time when people had very difficult time accessing information, so they created this lovely spot on the shores of Chautauqua Lake which is near Lake Erie on the western edge of New York state and created a summertime community where people came together and lived in community but all about learning.

Our purpose is to explore the best in human values and the enrichment of life. In doing so, we emulate the kind of community that expresses lifelong learning as its passion and as its ongoing commerce of the day. So we operate programs in the summer over a nine-week period at a time. In that time we produce 2,200 events. We also have a deep investment in the arts. We train artists and we have our own professional companies of symphony, opera, dance, theater, visual arts and the literary arts.

We also have an inter-religious community. There’s 17 different denominational and religious homes on the grounds, so religion is part of the experience of that community as well and it’s intergenerational so children to older adults in this idyllic sort of gathering. Again, the purpose is to create an environment in which at a very human scale, in a totally brilliantly beautiful place, people come together and enter into a conversation and in engagement with ideas and images and important issues and really invest themselves in both learning and provoking discussion.

Harmony: What a grand span of ideas and disciplines and topics. It sounds fascinating.

Becker: It is fascinating.

Harmony: Mr. Campbell, we know of course the mission of Colonial Williamsburg is that the future may learn from the past, and we look at the lessons of the past and apply them to our present-day citizenship. How does our mission tailor together with that of the Chautauqua Institution?

Campbell: They’re remarkably similar, even though the description that Tom Becker has just given of Chautauqua makes it sound like quite a different place. Our missions are very, very similar indeed.

I went to Chautauqua first in 2006 and I was giving a talk in their amphitheater on “From Subjects to Citizens: The American Experience” a subject you’ve heard about before from me, and it was quite an experience. Tom has pointed out the wonderful cultural and physical attributes of the place as well as the kind of exchanges that go on there, the continuing education effort. I can only say that I was just amazed by the thousands of people who came to my talk who had that lake beckoning them right over their shoulder and didn’t pay any attention to that lake at that time. They paid attention to what I had to say, and they asked tough questions and thoughtful questions and they were very much engaged.

And from my perspective, on that occasion, it seemed very clear that Colonial Williamsburg and Chautauqua had a commonality that we ought to try to press on and Tom and I have done that now, ever since 2006 with a range of programs here and there that speak to that mission that the future may learn from the past. And I am extremely impressed with the way that Chautauqua engages its audiences and the opportunity that they provided for us to be part of it.

In the second time that we were around there in a significant way at Chautauqua on a program on the history of liberty, we took 15 of our interpreters to Chautauqua. And we had some of our interpreters performing in those programs to try to bring alive the stories and the messages that were bring conveyed in the morning session, and it worked beautifully. I’m fond of saying that we work in the same intellectual waters, we share the same values, we are committed to engagement and informed citizenship as institutions and that’s what makes us similar. That’s what brings us together.

Harmony: Engaged and informed citizens. That’s really the theme of the event that brings us together this weekend. We’re a part of a conference, you are both part of a conference titled “Turning Worlds Upside Down,” in which you’re examining liberty and democracy in the present era. Tom, how are some of the themes -- I think Colonial Williamsburg tends to look at some of these revolutionary themes through a sort of 18th century Revolutionary lens -- how is Chautauqua bringing a perspective that ties that into a present-day global context?

Becker: Well I think the fact that we do that is goes to just what Colin was saying about how effective our partnership really is. In both cases, our real investment is an engaged and effective citizenry and there is much to learn from history. If we just stay in a historical context and don’t take it in to a present consideration then we affect very little really about how we govern ourselves.

So what we do in our facility is to invest in all of the trappings of an engaged discussion. So we’re designed around, you know, a human scale of dialog and engagement both at a formal sense and an informal way. And what we hope is to take the enormous resources of Colonial Williamsburg to look in a scholarly and disciplined way at our founding and at those principles and try to apply them not to not only our current American situation, but how we look at the world around us.

This summer, for example, we’ll specifically look at the phenomenon of what is unfolding in Egypt both, and again, look back on what did we learn and how are we learning these lessons still today in our form of democracy, and through that lens what do we see in Egypt and what do our Egyptian guests see in us? And then inside that part of the dialog, hopefully, an engaged process in which we can all be uplifted, learn and find room in which we can make effective involvements.

Harmony: You’ve talked about being uplifted, engaged and educated as citizens. What’s the end goal with that? Is it an end in itself to be uplifted and involved and educated or is there a higher goal that you’re looking for with citizenship?

Becker: Our purpose is engagement, is real activity. When you look at the Chautauqua audience which gathers from around the country, indeed from around the world, there’s a both an intellectual and a moral earnestness that is common to all of them, but great differences in terms of the political parties or the economic circumstances, or the ideologies that might be embraced by any one of them.

I think the point is that they come into an environment in which they’re challenged to think openly and new and critically about ideas and our hope is that when they leave there, they’re better prepared to find a place for their own contributions to a more just society.

Harmony: And in concrete terms, what do you see those contributions being?

Becker: It affects school boards, it affects businesses, it affects social groups, it directs young people in terms of what they should decide to do with their career paths. You see that again and again in the Chautauqua experience. It enlivens what you witness as the evening news or articles. You see past the superficial elements and into some of the context that rides underneath that. I think it makes you not only more informed, but more able to push the context of the conversation beyond the limits of what, say, the news cycle gives you.

Harmony: It’s more than just voting. It’s a whole ethos. It’s a way of living.

Becker: Oh, very much so. It’s about a participative life.

Harmony: Mr. Campbell, some of the themes that we’re exploring this weekend are very specific in mixing some of these ideas of past and present. What are some of the themes that it was important to explore that we are examining through some of guest speakers and topics and sessions?

Campbell: Let me first comment on what Thomas had to say, and just suggest that with Colonial Williamsburg and Chautauqua working together there have been strengths in each place that have been shared and therefore, I think improved probably, both places.

We have an historical context here and we know it well and we present it well and I think it’s very helpful to do that in the setting in Chautauqua. They have this address to contemporary issues that we have concluded is absolutely essential for us going forward as an institution. We can’t just focus on the history. We have to focus on the current contemporary relevance of that history and that’s the question you’ve now asked me.

To me, for example, right today we are seeing revolution or civil war, and we had this conversation with David Armitage as I’m sure you did in his podcast as well. Whether you call it revolution, whether you call it civil war, whatever you call it, we have these uprisings taking place in critical areas of the world. David referred to those in his talk last night and today at lunch Robin Wright will be talking about them very specifically in the Middle East. She’ll be talking about Syria and Egypt and Libya and what the impact of those activities is on the world today and what it has to do with the effort to create a democracy.

Robin Wright is an expert on Egypt, for example, and she will talk about what has happened to the democratic experiment -- which really it truly was in Egypt -- and how it’s failed at this juncture, where it’s going to go from here. Well that kind of subject and the interpretative programs that we will be offering here starting in just a little while for our guests are to give people some opportunity to think about the link between what happened historically and what’s happening today and to see that past is prologue in a lot of circumstances, and that it’s very healthy to understand that, and also to learn from it so that in the future there may be different approaches taken to avoid some of the failures that have occurred at the moment.

And so that’s really what I think these programs are designed to show. Among other things, they’re designed to show that in a revolutionary time some of the value which are being fought for in that revolution are at the same time being undermined by the conduct of the war, the activity that surrounds it. We have a couple of programs at Colonial Williamsburg, a tarring and feathering program out in the streets, for example, which is frankly a statement that the patriots could be intolerant of differing points of view, and that at the time of this heavy concern about the relationship to the mother country and the concerns about the tyranny of the king, some judgments, some values were undermined in the process. That’s the kind of thing that we’ll be seeing today and that’s happening in these revolutions around the world right now as well.

Harmony: You’ve mentioned some of the topics for the immediate future and the locked arms going forward. What are your hopes long term for this partnership between the two institutions?

Becker: Well, my hope is that the two institutions become more institutionally bound, that is, beyond the relationship that Colin and I have and into genuine directional purposes of the two institutions.

Secondly, I think this model of using the depth of the scholarship and the expressive lessons of our own forming and our continual forming of this democracy in balance against, you know, what’s going on in various parts of the world will be an unfolding story that these institutions, I think, can combine to both tell and engage in over a long period of time.

Campbell: That’s my hope as well. I couldn’t say it better. That’s what I hope will happen and I have every reason to think it will because it works so well and it’s so timely.

Harmony: It’s a brilliant symbiosis of the strengths of both institutions. I’m so glad that you both could be here today and we look forward to all the wonderful contributions that will come out of this partnership going forward.

Becker: Thank you Harmony.

Campbell: So do we. Thanks Harmony.

Harmony: Thank you.