Publication Date

March 1, 1995

Perspectives Section


At this moment it appears that Disney probably will not build its American history theme park—at least not in northern Virginia. Whether or not this project is ever realized, the prospect of "Disney's America" has caused historians to address a number of important questions that often lurk at the periphery of the historical enterprise. Who owns the past and who has the right to interpret it? What is the role and function of collective memory? Should we hold sacred the places where "great men" once walked or where thousands of men bloodied and killed each other? Can we resolve the tension between entertainment and education? It is upon this last question that I would like to reflect.

Many who opposed Disney's proposed theme park have suggested a fundamental conflict between the purpose of the Disney project and the goals of historians. Disney intends to entertain for profit; historians hope to educate. Some have argued that the two are incompatible, and point to numerous examples of popular, commercial entertainment that serve only to muddle, distort, and simplify the past. The damage that popular films like JFK or Mississippi Burning have done to the historical record, for example, has led critics to question the value of trying to combine entertainment with education—especially when that entertainment is driven by the pursuit of profit.

Others have suggested that education and entertainment are not necessarily in conflict, but rather that the two lie along a continuum. The challenge, those who hold this opinion maintain, rests in finding ways to make the process of entertaining and the process of educating reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. Museum people have been grappling with this issue for decades. Aware that their primary purpose is education, they have also faced the problem of making the museum experience entertaining enough to attract audiences. Lately some museums have begun to borrow the tools of entertainers. Not only video and film, but also some of the techniques pioneered by companies like Disney have found their way into museums. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's effort to "re-create" the camps and the recent dramatic reenactment of a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia are only two examples of museum educators borrowing from the arsenal of entertainers.

Two things seem missing from much of this discussion: a closer look at the audience and a historical context. Historian Michael Wallace has remarked that while recent scholarship reveals much about the origins of history museums and something about the "messages" they purvey, we as yet understand little about who attends. We do not yet know "why people go" or "what visitors come away with."

What we do know, but what we often overlook, is that Americans in the millions choose to spend their leisure-time that they could be spending in recreation-in pursuit of some sort of instruction or education. Moreover, this is not a new phenomenon. It dates in the United States, at least, from the early decades of the 19th century. It might be useful to remind ourselves that Americans have a long history of attempting to combine instruction with entertainment.

The history of American leisure is crammed with examples of people spending their nonwork time in search of information, enlightenment, and self-improvement. Antebellum Americans chose to spend hours listening to political oratory. They made the lyceum movement a huge success, flocking to lectures in small towns and cities throughout the country. There is little doubt that the audience found the lectures both entertaining and edifying. Moreover, according to historian Joseph Kett, the lecturers themselves "thought of amusement and instruction as potentially complementary rather than as necessarily antagonistic objectives."

The combination of education and entertainment persisted but often took new forms during the last half of the 19th century. These years witnessed the emergence of a wide range of new sorts of leisure opportunities. Sports, both participatory and spectator, began to capture the attention of increasing numbers of Americans. Cities spawned a variety of commercial amusements that appealed to people across the social spectrum. These years also witnessed the emergence of a new leisure institution in American life—the vacation.

Where once only members of the elite had been able to leave home for extended visits to places like White Sulphur Springs, Saratoga Springs, or Newport, the years after 1850 brought vacationing within the expectations of middle-class workers-clerks, schoolteachers, and professionals. For the first time, a small but growing portion of the middle class found itself able to spend a week or two away from home for the purpose of rest and recreation. By the 1870s resorts were springing up along the coasts, in the mountains, around lakes, and near mineral springs to serve this population of eager vacationers.

How and why this happened is a long and complex story, but one of its important chapters concerns the many 19th-century vacationers who chose to spend their leisure at institutions specifically designed to combine education and amusement. The most famous of these was Chautauqua.

Founded in 1874 by John Vincent, a Methodist minister, and Lewis Miller, a successful inventor and manufacturer, Chautauqua was originally designed as a place to train and educate Sunday-school teachers. Vincent and Miller chose a site on Lake Chautauqua in southwestern New York, at a spot that had previously been used for Methodist camp meetings. The founders made it clear, however, that this would be no camp meeting; there would be no fiery sermons or evangelistic services.

While their original intent was to instruct Sunday-school teachers, Vincent and Miller, both passionately committed to liberal education, quickly broadened the Chautauqua curriculum. Within a few years scientific lecturers and reformers made regular appearances on the Chautauqua platform. By the end of the 1870s Chautauqua boasted a language school, which added Greek, Latin, French, German, and Oriental languages to the earlier offerings in Hebrew. And as the century progressed, the curriculum modeled itself increasingly after that offered at universities.

Chautauqua was also a place for recreation. Humorists often mounted the platform. Participants at the very first assembly enjoyed musical concerts and displays of fireworks. As early as 1875 the New York Times was noting Chautauqua’s success in combining amusement and instruction. The several thousand people encamped there in August “listened … with much interest” to the lecture of a Dr. Eggleston, one that “was full of suggestive and valuable thought.” The article also noted how “between meetings the people engage in anything they please … . Swings, boats, baths, ice cream gardens, and all that class of things engage the time and effort of many, while others give attention to pursuits more in the line of study.” News of Chautauqua spread and its popularity soared. By the mid-1880s the New York Times reported that from 60,000 to 100,000 people made the annual trip to the “recreation[al] and educational summer resort.” And Chautauqua was only one of numerous such places. Its success spawned other similar institutions throughout the country. Some, like the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute, targeted schoolteachers. Others appealed to a broader—if still middle-class—constituency.

These examples all come from the 19th century and include primarily the middle class. But the efforts to combine education and recreation continued into the 20th century, when they were embraced by working-class people as well. The Bryn Mawr summer school and summer camps run by unions, for example, reveal that when working-class men and women had access to extended periods of leisure, they often chose to use them for purposes of self-improvement.

Of course, attempts at merging amusement and instruction did not always run smoothly or successfully. Nineteenth-century critics often complained that popular lectures lacked rigor and that the education they afforded was, at best, simplified and haphazard. Problems grew not only from concerns for academic integrity, but also from tension between the recreational and educational goals of places like Chautauqua. The leaders of Chautauqua took steps to ensure that some of the activities that characterized other resorts would not surface on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. Alcohol was strictly prohibited. Those who occasionally arrived showing "signs of liquor" were refused entry and, according to a reporter for the New York Times, “allowed to wilt on the dock in the sun till the next boat comes along and removes them.” Some guests continued to ignore the prohibition. One Saturday evening, for example, one of Chautauqua’s “strong-handed policemen” discovered “a couple of young men who had brought to Fair Point a large square box filled with bottles of whiskey.” The young men were quickly dispatched and the whiskey seized and destroyed. Prohibition of liquor at Chautauqua no doubt stemmed largely from temperance principles espoused by many Methodists. But it may also have grown from fears of Vincent and Lewis (who had himself admitted to enjoying “a toddy with his father until his church became politically active in the temperance movement”) that amusement would overpower education at Chautauqua.

Chautauqua was just one of many 19th-century vacation experiences. While some vacation choices reflected a similar desire to use extended periods of leisure for the purposes of self-improvement—trips to expositions and centennials, visits to natural wonders—others revealed no such impulse. Many Americans understandably chose (and still choose) to spend their vacations resting their bodies and their minds.

The link between education and entertainment is by no means universal or omnipresent. Courtland Milloy, writing in the Washington Post in November 1992, made it perfectly clear that he found the prospect of certain sorts of education entirely at odds with amusement. Considering Disney’s plans for its proposed theme park, Milloy remarked: “A Lewis and Clark river ride? Fine. An Industrial Revolution Ferris wheel? Just strap me in. But to walk into a theme park with an exhibit designed to make me ‘feel what it was like to be a slave’ simply lacks the amusing quality that I’ve come to expect.” Milloy was responding in part as an African American who feared, with good reason, that Disney might trivialize the African American past. But his response also suggests that he prefers his amusement without educational encumbrances, especially if such encumbrances suggest or remind him of dark and disturbing moments. Many people, both today and in the past, no doubt share his sentiments.

This country has also, however, sustained another tradition, one that has attempted to combine recreation and education. Whether Disney's America would nourish or offend this tradition remains the open question. I will not venture an answer, only a few more questions. Does the profit motive undermine the educational potential of a project like Disney's? Probably. But it is possible to find examples of commercial entertainment, such as the movie Schindler's List, that are not inimical to education. Entertainment that provokes, troubles, and challenges is not necessarily doomed to commercial failure. More generally, did the bifurcation of culture into “highbrow” and “lowbrow” at the end of the 19th century and the spread of commercialized, mass entertainment in the 20th century irrevocably alter this education-entertainment continuum? Is it absurd to suggest continuity between Chautauqua and Disney in the light of what has happened to American entertainment in the intervening century? Maybe not. Americans are working longer hours and enjoying less leisure than at any time since the end of World War II. But many still choose to combine much of that hard-won leisure with some sort of education. They travel to places like Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello in Virginia. They bring their children to Washington, D.C., to visit the museums and monuments. Americans have not in the past, nor do they today, require that all their amusements be mindless. The nature of entertainment has certainly changed over the last century, but the desire to link entertainment and education has persisted. I suggest that as historians and educators we should not ignore this tradition, but rather try to nurture and encourage it.

— is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. She would like to thank Edward Ayers, Alon Confino, Joseph Kett, Ann Lane, and Phyllis Leffler for their helpful comments.

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