Cambridge Chautauqua

Circling the Square

Education is great fun. At least that's the claim at Brattle House where 1,600 students gather each week to take courses with no exams, no credit, and no required reading.

Although the Cambridge Center for Adult Education hardly resembles a latter-day Platonic academy, neither is it a refuge for dilettantes. Most of its members are young women with husbands in graduate schools; some are retired persons, and a few are undergraduates at Harvard or Radcliffe. As the catalogue puts it, "Ages range from 18 to 80," and the range of 10-week courses covers a comparable expanse.

A glance through the catalogue reveals the danger of making generalizations about either students or their interests. While arts and crafts are the most popular courses, subjects range from "Why the Weather" to "Five Plays of Bernard Shaw" and "The Art of Decoupage." Those to whom current events are a mystery may take "Whats Going On?" while conversationalists who read can enroll in "Books and Coffee." There is "Bach for Beginners" and "Bird Study," "Poetry Writing" and "Playing Popular Music." Nine language courses are taught, and no fewer than eleven different music courses are on the curriculum.

Instructors at the Center reflect the diversity of their subjects. Some are professors, but not Harvard professors. (The University has a blanket rule against employees teaching elsewhere while at Harvard). Some are professionals in their fields, like the clinical psychologist who teaches "Psychology of the Personality." Other instructors are experienced amateurs, like some of the craft teachers.

A non-profit organization, the Center pays the salaries of its staff from tuition and individual contributions. Fairs are also used to balance the budget, such as the Bamboo Bizarre on May 25 which will feature saki and attempt to sell objects of art made by members.

Members have increased steadily since the opening of the Center eighteen years ago in pre-Revolutionary Brattle House. Actually, the Center traces its history back to 1889 when the Cambridge Social Union bought the house with an eye toward "providing innocent amusements and means of social and intellectual improvement." With the decline of innocent amusements during the 20's, the Social Union recognized defeat, and fifteen years passed without a meeting of the board of directors. Not until 1938 did Brattle House return to its mission for cultural improvement when the Cambridge Center for Adult Education opened with 19 courses and 273 members.

Lydia C. Weare, the director of the Center, remembers the early days when "We used to know everybody, the names of their dogs, and all their problems." Now she marvels at the capacity of Brattle House to accommodate 1,600 weekly students enrolled in courses in 70-odd subjects.

The tremendous growth of the Cambridge Center is part of a phenomenon by no means restricted to Brattle Street. In the Boston area, and all over the country, such programs have multiplied to a point where almost every respectable college, high school, museum, or church provides some form of adult education. For the most part, the newer centers are to some extent publicly supported.

Brattle House, however, values its independence much in the same way as does Harvard. Even at the Center academic freedom plays a role, though more in the sense of permitting a high degree of internal control in scheduling courses. Fads come and go at the Center, and if members become bored with Bernard Shaw, nothing prevents them from going to watch the birds in Mt. Auburn cemetery. The only problem is to find some one who can distinguish nuthatches from tufted titmice.