American Lyceum - American EducationThe largest, best and most influential of the voluntary educational institutions that sprang up in towns and cities across America in the first half of the 19th century. The lyceum was founded in 1826 by Josiah Holbrook, a wealthy farmer-scientist who had attended Yale and emerged a fervent social and educational reformer. Inspired by Scotland’s Andersonian Institution and similar organizations in England, Holbrook founded a network of self-help associations with two goals: to provide young men and the community in general with an inexpensive, practical education that would teach them various skills and crafts; and to bring higher education— especially science and technology—to the general public to help improve their lives.
Holbrook founded the first lyceum in Millbury, Massachusetts, where he delivered a series of lectures on the natural sciences. He then organized his listeners—farmers, mechanics and others—to organize a self-help organization in which they shared skills, knowledge and other talents that improved the lot of all members. The Millbury Lyceum No. 1, Branch of the American Lyceum proved startlingly successful, and Holbrook set out as a missionary for his new educational movement. Within months, he had organized dozens of village lycea and county lycea, each with a local “board of mutual education,” which collected one dollar a year from each member.
The movement spread southward into Connecticut and other states, and by 1829 to every region of the United States. It became the most powerful new educative force in America at a time when Americans were hungry for skills and knowledge that would ensure their success in life. Public schools had yet to be established in most communities, and most ordinary Americans either could not afford or did not want to go to church-operated schools, which provided the only source of formal education. The movement was, in effect, America’s first secular public school system, and, more significant, its first public vocational school system.
The complexion of each lyceum varied from town to town, state to state and region to region, depending on member needs. It operated as a citizen democracy, providing varying degrees of education, culture, vocational training and entertainment and imbuing every community with heightened interest in education, libraries and intellectual pursuits generally. The Apprentices’ Literary Association in New Haven, Connecticut, was made up of workingmen. The Kennebunk, Maine, lyceum was largely a middle- class reading club and debating society. Cities such as New York and Chicago had various types of lycea—some for a general audience of young men, others for mechanics, still others for literary types. Initially, they drew on their own memberships for lecturers. The Concord, Massachusetts, lyceum, which was probably the most intellectually elevated in the nation, sponsored 14 concerts, 105 debates and 784 lectures during its first few years. More than 300 lectures were given by the area’s gifted residents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave 98 lectures, and Henry David Thoreau, who delivered 19. Many lycea created libraries, others provided the foundations for local schools and still others sponsored publications. Some evolved into important societies, associations and institutes for specific occupational groups, such as farmers, mechanics or teachers, while others became professional institutes to upgrade and provide mutual education for doctors, lawyers and engineers. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia founded a high school, and Chicago’s Union Agricultural Society published the Prairie Farmer.
The voluntary self-help societies based on mutual help became one of the most important movements in the history of American education and may well have been responsible for halting the takeover of education by the church and opening the way for public acceptance of secular, public school education. The movement peaked in the late 1830s, then slowly began to fade in the years before the Civil War as public schools and then libraries sprouted across the nation and replaced lycea as primary providers of education.