The Chautauqua Institution, located in the southwestern corner of New York city, is a not-for-profit educational center situated right next to Chautauqua Lake. Approximately 7,500 people attend the 750-acre educational retreat center during its 9-week-long season each year. The center is host to more than 140,000 scheduled events for the public. More than 8,000 students are enrolled each year in the Chautauqua Summer Schools, to study about art, dance, music, writing, theater, and various other special interests.
Originally called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, the institution was founded in 1874, to be an experiment in educational vacation learning. The experiment was a rousing success, and was almost immediately broadened to include not just Sunday School courses, but also academic subjects, art, music, and physical education. The founders of the institution were Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, both of whom were Methodists. But from the very beginning, there were other Protestant denominations involved in the activities, and the leadership today comes from a variety of spiritual and practical belief systems. Chautauqua's Department of Religion serves as a sounding board for religious leaders throughout the country and abroad, both as teachers and preachers.
In 1878 the founders established the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), so that students who did not have the time or money to attend college could still acquire the skills and knowledge offered by a regular college education. The CLSC, a 4-year correspondence course, was one of the first organized attempts to provide higher education distance learning. But besides offering broader access to a college education, the program was also intended to help people learn to use their leisure time wisely, and avoid participating in idle pastimes such as dancing, drinking, gambling, and going to the movies, all of which threatened both morality and health.
When the CLSC reading circles became popular, students were encouraged to establish local circles throughout the country, and later, throughout the world. People who gained the most benefit from the CLSC programs were women, teachers, and people who lived in rural areas where there were no formal schools nearby. After completing four years of study, students were summoned to Chautauqua to take part in a ceremony where they received their certificates. The ceremony is still held today, in the first week of August.
By 1880, the Chautauqua retreat had been established as an open forum for discussing public concerns, international issues, science, and literature, with nearly 100 lecturers appearing each season. With music becoming increasingly important to the platform, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra was established in 1920, and the symphony now performs three times a week during the season in the 5,000-seat Chautauqua Amphitheater. Popular national entertainers, including Bill Cosby, Amy Grant, The Beach Boys, Randy Travis, Loretta Lynn, and Mark Russell have appeared there on other evenings. The amphitheater is also home to the Chautauqua Ballet Company, the Chautauqua Conservatory Theater, and the Chautauqua Opera Company.
The Chautauqua Institution holds a unique place in education today, offering students education combined with a vacation retreat. The enhanced learning opportunities provided by their schedule encourages students to share learning experiences with each other in a congenial, open atmosphere. The institution holds fast to its primary mission: to ensure that everyone 'has a right to be all that he can be―to know all that he can know'.