A brief conversation with a stranger may set off a train of reflections. After a recent Ashbrook luncheon lecture — we have six of these during the school year, three per semester — a new attendee came up to tell me how impressed he was by the event. Not only did he praise the speaker; he marveled at the number of people who had gathered to listen to the address (between four and five hundred people normally attend each lunch).
He was also surprised by the different kinds of people in attendance: college and high school students, bankers and lawyers, shopkeepers and manufacturers, preachers and teachers, and even some professors. He noted that all seemed at home with the experience; they ate and talked sociably, engaging one another in conversations on the issues of the day. He found all this very good, and very unusual. Although intellectually stimulating, the event was a social occasion.
He wanted to know more about the Ashbrook Center, our purposes and how we carried them out. So I spoke of our programs, the number and quality of the Ashbrook Scholars, how we also conduct six Colloquia during the year, offer a graduate program in American history and politics that draws teachers from around the country, maintain a half-dozen very good web sites — in short, how we are doing nothing less than breathing new life into the study and appreciation of the American Founding and its principles. I told him that we are able to do all these things because of our supporters, who think that what we do benefits not only the local community but also the country as a whole.
Trying to give a name to our mode of doing things, I said our work resembled the lyceums of the early nineteenth century. Before I could explain this, we were interrupted, and the man had to leave our gathering to resume his labors. So this might be a good opportunity to elaborate on what I meant.
The name “lyceum” comes from ancient Athens. The place where Aristotle taught was the covered portico of a gymnasium dedicated to the temple of Apollo Lyceus. (As a place of recreation just outside the city boundaries, it was not unlike the location Plato chose for his teaching, a grove of sacred olive trees called the Academy). The word “lyceum” continued to be used for institutions of education in Europe (eighteenth-century universities in Italy and Switzerland were called lyceums), and the French still call their upper secondary schools lycées. In the young United States, where schools of any kind were haphazard affairs at best, the word lyceum took on a different, and more capacious, meaning.
Lyceums sprang up in our growing nation early in the nineteenth century. In small and large towns, people met regularly to hear public lectures, each listener paying a small fee. It shouldn’t surprise us that in a regime founded on liberty and equality, self-government was understood in the broadest way possible. It was the duty of individuals to improve themselves, to make something of themselves in every way. (In today’s world, by contrast, when we say, “make something of yourself,” we only mean to prosper economically.) Terms like self-improvement, self-culture, self-made men, became meaningful in this period. These new men in a new world—these American citizens—were determined to construct themselves, balancing their souls and lives in the way that self-government required. After all, the American experiment in constitutional government was under ongoing review. Citizens had to prove to themselves (and to a skeptical world) that they could keep their Republic through self-discipline.
They intended to establish a “social institution,” in the words of an 1828 lyceum document, that would raise “the moral and intellectual tastes of our fellow countrymen,” and “awaken a spirit of inquiry among all classes of the community.”
By the time the 28-year-old Abe Lincoln spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838, lyceums had spread from New England to even the remote western frontier. In the best known of his early talks, Lincoln spoke “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” revealing a mind already preparing itself for the crisis in popular government that would seize the country a few decades later.
Lincoln asks: Can human beings govern themselves? Or is democracy doomed to die by suicide?
So my conversation with the stranger leads me to this. While our work at the Ashbrook Center is indeed academic, it is also much more. That we educate young men and women in the liberal arts and in the principles and practices of free government is true enough. But as “legal inheritors” of this “goodly land” (to quote Lincoln’s words), we address the local and national community at large, reminding our fellow citizens of the virtues necessary for self-rule.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.