Speakers series taps into rich tradition of ideas
When the tickets went on sale at the Old Corner Bookstore, so the story goes, the eager crowd pressed against the shop windows until they shattered. The tickets, remarkably enough, were for the public lecture series of the Lowell Institute, a cornerstone of Boston’s cultural life for most of the 19th century and beyond. The stampede says plenty about the city’s historic commitment to learning, even outside its ivory towers.
The Lowell Institute discontinued its lectures long ago, around the time that Ralph Lowell, a family descendant, helped create the model for educational television by founding WGBH. Now the lecture tradition is being revived in Boston by the Cambridge Speakers Series - started, as it happens, by an out-of-towner.
Bill Conrow, a San Francisco-area lawyer and real estate developer, launched the subscription series 14 years ago in St. Louis after enthusing over a similar program near his home in northern California. Soon after, he was encouraged to bring the series to Pittsburgh, and he now runs programs in Baltimore and Philadelphia, too. Speakers have ranged from Robert Redford and Garrison Keillor to Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and the late Walter Cronkite.
Though he took the name Cambridge Speakers, there was no local connection, he said recently from his West Coast home: “I just thought the name Cambridge equated with intellectual stimulation.’’
The inaugural season of the Boston Speakers Series is set to feature such notables as former CIA agent Valerie Plame and her husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson, food writer Michael Pollan, educator Michelle Rhee, the reformed con artist Frank Abagnale, and newsman Tom Brokaw.
The monthly series, which takes place at Symphony Hall, begins Wednesday with one of Conrow’s favorite guests, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough.
Who better than McCullough, the Boston-based author of “John Adams’’ and “1776,’’ to remind us of this region’s deep-rooted craving for knowledge?
Lectures such as those of the Lowell Institute were “a hugely popular part of life’’ in 19th-century Boston, said McCullough. Figures such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, the natural historian Louis Agassiz and the chemist Benjamin Silliman brought the lecture form to new heights of artistry, he said.
“They really became performers, but in an intellectual milieu,’’ McCullough explained. “They were as conscious of stagecraft in their way as any professional actor. Of course, there was no TV and very little in the way of traveling entertainment, so people soaked it up.’’
Conrow, who studied to be an oral surgeon before switching to law, says the thinking behind the subscription plan (the series starts at $245 for seven events) is twofold. One is practical: a single marketing campaign is more cost-effective than seven individual ones.
More importantly, he believes in exposing audiences to divergent ideas and fields outside their own expertise.
“I think we’re living at a time when people are becoming more polarized,’’ he said. “People are inclined to listen to those who think like themselves. A series of lectures exposes people to speakers who have ideas different than their own.
Case in point: the time Alan Dershowitz spoke as part of the series in St. Louis, a fairly conservative town. After the event several subscription holders approached Conrow to express their surprise. “So many people said something like, ‘I couldn’t stand Alan Dershowitz, but he was so terrific,’ ’’ recalled Conrow, who spends a few weeks each summer with his family on Martha’s Vineyard. Audience members, he said, are often amused to find that the speaker they enjoyed most is someone they thought they had no interest in hearing.
From the perspective of the speaker, a rapt audience can give off “a current of electricity,’’ said McCullough.
“If I give a really good talk, it’s because I’ve had a great audience,’’ said McCullough, who divides his time between Boston and the Vineyard. “I know it. I couldn’t stand in front of a blank wall and do it.’’
Renowned for his lectures, these days McCullough takes the podium without so much as a set of notes. He has learned to embrace the workings of his own mind while onstage.
“Laurence Olivier said it’s not the words, but the spaces in between,’’ he said.
The Lowell Institute was preceded in Boston by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, an educational organization that began in 1829 as an offshoot of a London group of the same name. John Lowell Jr., son of Francis Cabot Lowell, was a founding member. After the successive deaths of his wife and children, Lowell spent his remaining years traveling the world. When he died in 1836, his will called for the establishment of the Lowell Institute trust.
With college-level educations still a relative rarity, lectures were a significant attraction across the country through the 1800s. The Chautauqua Movement, a popular circuit of adult education programs, began at a lakeside campsite in New York in 1874. Lecture series continued to prosper into the new century; in 1903, the nonprofit Commonwealth Club of California, a public affairs forum still in existence, was formed in San Francisco.
Television surely hastened the demise of public lectures. In the Internet age, McCullough thinks it’s an idea whose time has come again.
“People still want to go and see a live human being, truly,’’ he said.
And it’s about time it returns to Boston.
“If there’s any soil in which to try to grow this crop,’’ said McCullough, “this is the one.’’