The Lyceum Movement Online

The things we get most exciting about, the things we find most enticing and revolutionary, are also things most likely to be old–once you strip away the new skin. They are the familiar wrapped up in shiny new presentations.

The MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes) are a case in point. When you look at them closely, they are little more than the lectures of the lyceum movement of ‘self culture’ of almost two centuries ago–but with an electronic sheen.

Writing in the 1960s, John Cawelti (in Apostles of the Self-Made Man) describes:

an age rich in cultural institutions aimed at providing intellectual and artistic as well as economic opportunities for the mass of American citizens. In 1826, for example, Timothy Claxton, an English immigrant, founded the Boston Mechanics’ Institution and the Young Mechanic, a paper which promoted the idea of self-education for artisans and mechanics. Other institutions of the same type soon appeared, along with libraries, lecture-series, and other organizations created to give members of the working class opportunities of self-culture. Typical of these institutions were the appropriately entitled Franklin Lectures, established in Boston in 1831 to “give entertainment and instruction, upon terms so moderate, that everybody might attend them.” In the same year that saw the opening of Claxton’s Mechanics’ Institution, Josiah Holbrook, a well-to-do farmer of Millbury, Massachusetts, founded the first American lyceum. The idea of the lyceum spread like wildfire across the country, and by 1831 the delegates of a thousand town lyceums organized the National American Lyceum in New York City. By the 1850’s, institutions for self-culture blanketed the northern and western states. (83)

What happened to the lyceums? Well, aside from the buildings, many of which still stand, they were subsumed into (replaced by, actually) the college and university system that exploded in size between the Civil War and World War I. Courses for self-culture became courses for certified culture within regulated establishment institutions.

Today’s MOOCs, shepherded by establishment institutions, have that track built into them from the start–and require no stand-alone physical locations. Other than that, though, they aren’t much different from the lyceums. Both are built upon the traditional lecture and the idea of the expert that others can learn from (in this way, also, they aren’t that different from books). They make learning a matter of watching and listening, leaving any ‘doing’ to the student himself or herself.

It makes one scratch one’s head to see people so panicked and so enthused about MOOCs, about what they imagine is a coming revolution in higher education. No, maybe it doesn’t: people rarely manage to look back.

2 thoughts on “The Lyceum Movement Online

    • Thanks. Yours is the more cynical approach. In neither case can I see MOOCs as anything really new or revolutionary.

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