Brookline Historical Publication Society

The History of the Lyceum Movement In Brookline
[Editor's Note: Published July, 1896.]

About the middle of the present century, a great wave of literary enthusiasm swept over this country. The necessity of a broader and more general education was felt, and the Lyceum arose to satisfy this need.

The first society was founded by Josiah Holbrook, probably in 1820. He was born in Derby, Connecticut, and graduated at Yale, where he became deeply interested in Prof. Silliman's lectures on chemistry, mineralogy and geology.

In 1820 he published an article in the American Journal of Education on "Associations of adults for the purpose of mutual education." Sometime afterwards, while he was delivering a course of lectures on scientific subjects before the people of Millbury, Massachusetts, he induced about forty persons to organize such a society and to name it the Millbury Lyceum. The members were residents of the village, and the lecturers were their own townsmen, who gave addresses on philosophical and scientific subjects. Their aim was to diffuse knowledge by means of classes, lectures and the interchange of ideas.

A convention was held in Boston, November 7, 1820, "to promote the interests of the lyceums and to further their widespread organization." Among those who participated in this meeting were Webster, Everett, Dr. Lowell and George B. Emerson; and it is probable that part of the business transacted was the organization of the American Lyceum, which was to represent the local societies.

The committee wish to call attention to the work already done by the Society, and to solicit a wider cooperation in the future. Members receive the publications as they are issued. The annual fee of $1.00 should be sent to the treasurer, Mr. C. K. Bolton, Public Library, Brookline, Mass.

A series of scientific tracts was published by Holbrook in 1830, and in 1832 he started a journal called the" Family Lyceum." There were then seventy-eight Lyceums in Massachusetts, with state and county organizations.

In 1834 he went to Pennsylvania and promulgated his schemes there. One of his chief plans was for a Universal Lyceum, which should unite all the societies of the United States. He also tried to start several Lyceum Villages, but the only one which really did begin had a short existence.

Holbrook was an earnest advocate of his progressive ideas, and his relatives may well claim him with pride, as the originator of the Lyceum movement.

Up to 1832 Brookline had been refreshed and instructed by an occasional lecture, but during this year a regular course was started, through Mr. Isaac Thayer. A company was organized, called the "Brookline Lyceum Society," which had charge of engaging lecturers and making the arrangements at the hall. During its most important years the old school-house, now Pierce Hall, was used for its lectures; but after the completion of Lyceum Hall and the" New Town Hall," (our Police Station), the old hall was neglected for the new ones.

There are few now living in Brookline who have very distinct remembrances of the matter presented in these lectures; some, however, are not slow to recollect the pleasures of "going and coming." Perhaps that was the most interesting part, yet the chief aim of the lecturer was not to furnish amusement, nor even "that people might take in their three or four pounds of ice for their aesthetic teas and other parties." Indeed, the lecturing was called "Lay Preaching," and the lectures "Lay Sermons."

Those who attended the Lyceum course in this town ought certainly to have had a broad knowledge of current topics. A few extracts from a journal kept during the height of the popularity of the Lyceum here, prove that opportunities for increasing one's information were not lacking.

In 1834 a lady* wrote, "January 14. Mr. Dunkin lectures." Probably on Phrenology.

"January 29. Mr. Dunkin lectures again."

"February 5. Mr. Dunkin lectures on 'Phrenology.' Enjoyed it so much. So excited I could not sleep."

"February 7. Mr. Dunkin improves every time we hear him. Phrenology is all the rage. Callers talk about it."

"February 12. Dr. Griggs lectured on' Physical Education.'''

"Mr. Dunkin has spoiled us for any other lecturer. Words are too feeble to express Mr. Dunkin's praise. It is like hearing sweet music to listen to him, besides feasting one's eyes on his beauty . Very much excited over the subject."

Are the girls of today the only ones who were ever emotional? "February 19. Mr. Charles Emerson lectured on 'Socrates;' 'A delightful specimen of his creator's workmanship,' as one lady observed." This was the same man, whom some of the Brookline girls of that day used to speak of as, "That lovely Mr. Emerson."

" March 8. Mr. Cleveland lectured on ' Music.' Very inappropriate for audience."

During 1835 and 1836 Mr. Dunkin lectured several times; also, Dr. Fisher, Mr. Rufus Choate, B. B. Thatcher, Mr. Hillard, who published "Hillard's Readers," Ralph W. Emerson on "Toleration," and Mr. Quimby on "Electricity."

No connected account is given for 1837 and 1838; but in 1839, the journal already quoted, mentions lectures by Mr. Pierpont; by Mr. Goodrich, well known as Peter Parley; Mr. Sparks, on "The Career of the Revolution;" and Mr. Webster, on "Chemistry." About the last lecture, she says, "Nobody could understand it. Glad to get home."

In 1840 and 1841, the notices of lectures are not frequent, though the course may have been as regular; but in 1842, 1843, 1844,1845 and 1846 the records are more numerous. The lectures were various, and subjects were taken from all branches of learning. China, Germany, the Island of Great Britain, Shakespeare, Geology, Educating the Public Eye, the Character of Swedenborg, Temperance and Astronomy were all treated.

An effort was made to keep the audience from being mere sponges, to absorb all that they could; and in order to draw out the information received, a prize of ten dollars was offered to the one who should make best summaries of the lectures given during one winter. Miss Sarah Clark was several times the winner of the prize, but it is from the abstracts of one of her competitors, that we are able to get some idea of the character of these lectures.

In this collection of essays is a lecture on "General Literature," by Mr. A. H. Everett; one on "Entomology," by Dr. A. A. Gould, and one on "The Improvements which may be made in Education," by Rev. M. P. Wells. In this he says, "Education is that which fits us for life; and the education of the heart is the most important branch of instruction... . The will should be properly restrained, but never broken; very often kindness will succeed when all other means fail"

The next lecture was by Mr. B. B. Thatcher, on the same subject as the one before. He believed that "children should be instructed more by conversation and example than by books." He also told a very interesting incident connected with Haverhill. "There was no school," he says, "until a very late period of its settlement, and when one was established, it was in a room which was also used for military purposes, thus literally 'teaching the young ideas how to shoot.'"

Geology is the next subject mentioned, and the lecturer was Charles F. Jackson, whose name is associated with etherization. He proved that geology is of practical use to the engineer, architect, smelter of ores, physician and farmer, besides having the power of establishing the statements of the Bible.

Lowell Mason spoke on "Sacred Music," and said, "Singing gives habits of order and regularity It has no language for rage, envy, pride, revenge or any of the bad passions." In a note at the end of the summary of this lecture, she wrote, "The evening was closed (at the request of some who were present) with singing the tune' Old Hundred.' "

There is also in this journal a very interesting article, "On the materials which our country affords, for novels like Walter Scott's," by Rufus Choate. He suggests that some one should really make a business of hunting up the history and traditions of some particular part of the United States, and then write a series of volumes similar to the Waverley novels. His whole plan for these books is very ingenious and well worth considering.

The influence of the lectures was felt throughout the town, and here, as everywhere, they created a genuine taste for literature, the arts and history of men were led to think about moral, social and political problems, and as one of the most eloquent of American lecturers said, "The Lyceum was one of the chief means of touching the springs of public opinion." No stirring event, which influenced the life of men or the nation, passed without being illustrated to the American public by means of these lectures.

Indeed, the enthusiasm of the people was so aroused that a stock company of Brookline men was formed, for the purpose of building a hall suitable for the lectures.

Accordingly, "May 18, 1841, Thomas P. Pingree of Salem, for $1000 conveyed to Moses Jones and Marshall Stearns, trustees for Samuel A. Shurtleff, John Hayden, Henry J. Oliver and sundry other persons associated together for specific purposes as enumerated in their constitution and articles of agreement, and known by the assumed name of the Union Hall Association in Brookline, for the use and benefit of the persons of said Union Hall Association," the estate which afterwards became the Lyceum Hall property in Brookline.

"September I5, 184I, the members of the Union Hall Association having become a corporation by the name of the 'Lyceum of the Town of Brookline,' the trustees conveyed the property to the corporation."

But enthusiasm in those days did not stop with a generous gift of money; eagerness led men to work with their own hands. Private wagons were used to bring stones, and as far as possible each man took some active part in the building.

With all the good qualities that the Lyceum had there were also many faults. Its method of giving now a little art, now a little literature or science, enabled a regular attendant to obtain a slight knowledge of all these subjects, but no very clear idea of any. Sometimes a few people wrote abstracts of the lectures; but the entire work of the lecturer ceased when he had poured his knowledge into the ears of the audience; it was not his part to help them to assimilate it. There was no discussion, no questioning, and as an aid to connected study the lectures were of small use.

Today, as an outcome of the Lyceum movement, we have a system which combines the good of the lyceum with a distinct course of personal research and study. In the University Extension one may carryon a whole course in any department without leaving one's town.

The plan followed is very simple. A number of people agree on some subject for study. Arrangements are made with a lecturer from some university or college. An outline of study or the" syllabus" is given to the students. Lectures are delivered at intervals. Classes are held by the Professor; those interested in the course also carryon classes for mutual study; and at the end an examination is held, and" Certificates of Distinction" and "Pass Certificates" are awarded.

Travelling libraries are sent out, allowing the students greater opportunities for personal reading. The university authorities bring thought and energy to the work, and the people receive inspiration and mental vigor as the result.

But nearer to us than the University Extension is another outgrowth of the Lyceum, the High School Extension, with which the people of Brookline have some acquaintance. Its object is much the same as that of the University Extension, though its methods are somewhat different. In this, more stress is laid upon the "Quiz," and the lectures are made subservient to the individual work of the students.

Thus, one thing grows out of another. From the Lyceum we have the University Extension, and from the University Extension the High School Extension.

Perhaps we look upon the heterogeneous Lyceum lectures with a little thought of the superiority of our own well arranged courses, but are we not debtors to those early lectures for the idea of educational extension?

All branches of learning ought to have improved since 1820, but it was the Lyceum which took its start then, that aroused the minds of our grandfathers, afforded them greater opportunities for study, and made their lives broader and better able to understand and appreciate the gifts of God and men.

NOTE.- " Mr. Dunkin" was Christopher Duncan, the nephew of Mrs. Warne, wife of Rev. Joseph A. Warne, the Baptist minister,
[*] By Mrs. Barnet.

Printed in July, 1896