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A Look Back: Lyceum topics covered it all

  • In Peterborough, the Summer Lyceum lecture series has been a staple since 1828. File Photo



A Look Back
Saturday, March 02, 2019 8:30PM

These days, residents who attend the Monadnock Summer Lyceum lectures Sunday mornings at the Unitarian Church are as likely to hear about the Middle East or the inner city as about topics pertaining to life in these parts, but such was not the case 170 years ago, when the Peterborough Lyceums commenced.

In 1828, a committee, under the leadership of the Rev. Abiel Abbot, organized the lyceum as a discussion series to focus on matters directly relating to the town and its residents. Peterborough’s 1954 town history lists several of the topics broached at the early lyceums:

“Agriculture – The Advantages of Manufacturing in this Country to the Agricultural Interests; The Best Methods of Managing Manure Carried into the Filed in the Fall; The Expediency of the Culture of Hemp in this Town; Manufacturing – History of Cotton Manufactuing in Great Britain; Is the General Introduction of Machinery for the Purpose of Abridging Manual Labor Calculated to Promote the Happiness or Welfare of the Country?; Education – the Best Method of Distributing the Money Raised by the Town among the Schools’ Town Affairs; History, Expense and Cause of Pauperism in Peterborough; What are the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Organs of the Stomach and on Digestion?”

Such was the character of the lyceum through the 1840s. “Its meetings, which were entirely masculine affairs, were attended by the leading citizens,” the town history reports. “All participated in the discussions and differences of opinion were thoroughly and intelligently thrashed out.”

The lyceum saw a big change in 1849. For one thing, the discussions were opened to women. For another, the focus of the sessions shifted from topics of local interest to those of general or national interest. This was due in part to the rise of the antislavery movement, and the national discussion that accompanied it. Sessions were now spent debating issues like “Is a Man ever Justified in Refusing to Obey and Enacted Law of the United States?” and “Is the Standard of Marality in the Community at the Present Time Advancing?”

The town historians took note of one topic in particular: “Which has the Greater Influence on Society, the Male or the Female Sex?”

“This excites our interest,” the history tells us, “because the majority vote of the audience decided in favor of the male sex, but it was recorded by the secretary, Kendall C. Scott, that ‘Many of the ladies did not vote. Strange to us, that, at this time of Women’s Rights they should remain in their seats and let a question in this Lyceum be decided so deleterious to their interests, when decisions here are always considered final.’”

The lyceum in its new form continued through 1856. In 1860, it was started up for a short period as the Pine Grove Lyceum, and offered weekly sessions. Efforts to revive the lyceum in the late 1860s and ’70s were short-lived. By the time the 1954 town history was published, lyceums were a thing of the past. “Like all such organizations, changing times, conditions and points of view prevent their immortality,” the history reports. “However, for many years, the Lyceum was one of the greatest forces for good in our town, and the interest manifested in public matters today by the people of Peterborough may be an inheritance from those men who, by the Lyceum, were trained to be strong debaters and investigators of public questions. Certainly, although it is dead, its influence has left a permanent mark on the people of this town.”

Fortunately, the lyceum was only temporarily dead. In 1970, a committee of members of the Unitarian Church – the site of the original lyceums, revived the concept as a lecture series. The Lyceum has been held summer Sunday mornings continuously since then.

Jane Eklund ‘s history   column “A Look Back” originally appeared in the Monadnock Ledger.