Lyceum Rekindles Civil Democracy

· Logos/Ethos
July, 2007


Many people lately have recognized the irony of America’s  attempt to export democracy while it seems to be seriously threatened here at  home. While the source of our concern can easily be traced to the current  administration and its policies, perhaps we should also look to ourselves and  our increasing indifference to civic life. We the people are, after all, the  factor most responsible for the success of democratic life.

Civil democracy requires many factors to be effective.  Foremost is an educated and moral citizenry. Democratic citizenship demands that  we be effective critical thinkers and possess a knowledge of history and ideas  commensurate with our responsibility to govern ourselves. Likewise, it requires  that we be virtuous —not only law-abiding, but neighborly, socially trustful and  capable of looking beyond individual self-interest to a greater common good.

We on the Cape are more fortunate than most in that our  numerous cultural activities allow us to gather in shared experiences. These  events provide opportunities for both enlightenment and friendship, perhaps the  most essential moral virtue. To this intellectual community we are adding Cape Lyceum, a monthly lecture series dedicated to one theme: the preservation and  enhancement of civil democracy.

The series begins at 7 tonight at the Kelley Chapel on the  grounds of the Old Yarmouth Historical Society on Route 6A in Yarmouthport. Each  of our speakers will explore the same topic through his or her own particular  prism, including philosophy and ethics, education, the arts, history, science  and politics. July being the anniversary of our nation’s political independence,  this writer will open the series with “Aristotle, Jefferson and the Pursuit of  Happiness.”

The lyceum in America, taking its name from Aristotle’s  Athenian school of philosophy, originated as an adult educational movement in  Massachusetts in the 1820s. Lyceum halls sprang up across the landscape and soon  became centers of intellectual ferment for rural citizens. Lyceums such as the  one that still stands as a residence on Route 6A in Yarmouthport enabled  American democracy’s early growth by helping people stay abreast of the  contemporary ideas of which they would otherwise be ignorant. The influence of  lyceums was such that they were eventually transformed by Horace Mann into the  world’s first public school system.

It was through the lyceum circuit that America’s most  renowned intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, became a truly national figure.  Other well-known speakers included Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau and  Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Were it not for the lyceum circuit, many 19th-century  Americans would not have had any exposure to ideas like transcendentalism nor  insight into the most volatile issues of the time.

Some people would argue that with today’s electronic global  communications we no longer need intellectual events such as the small-town  lyceum provided. We have, they would argue, instantaneous access to news and  commentary that is not only informative but entertaining to boot.

This, ironically, may be one of democracy’s most serious  current problems. We have allowed electronic gadgetry and the amusement they provide not only to reduce our capacity for sustained critical thinking but also  to isolate us from our fellow citizens in a far more serious way than did the  miles of unpaved roads that separated our 19th-century forebears.

In his groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard  professor Robert Putnam speaks of the need for an increase of independent civic  engagement in order to counteract “the widespread tendency toward passive  reliance on the state.” Putnam’s thesis is that “the vibrancy of American civil  society has notably declined over the past several decades.” In short, active  civic engagement is what prevents the fabric of democracy from unraveling.

I doubt many of us would disagree with Putnam’s premise. We  need only observe how technological gadgetry has “privatized” our use of leisure  time. Devices such as iPods and DVDs allow us to satisfy our individual tastes  without joining “in concert” with others, further driving a wedge between our  individual and collective interests.

We are hopeful that our Cape Lyceum series will contribute  in some small way to those collective interests, enriching our intellectual and  moral lives and the civic life of the Cape. We invite you to join us.