COLUMN BY MICHAEL E. HILL
Welcome to Week Three at Chautauqua. I cannot believe we will close out the first third of our Assembly at the conclusion of this week. It proves the old adage: “Time flies when you’re having fun!” For those who have been with us the entire season, thanks for being a part of the fun. For those just coming to Chautauqua this week, thanks for joining us.
This week, we cover one of the most important themes of this Summer Assembly as we explore “Trust, Society and Democracy.” While recent work from the Pew Research Center had previously indicated our growing distrust in social institutions and of each other in making democratic decisions, the past year has brought this crisis of trust to a critical inflection point. In this week, we’ll ask some big questions: How can trust be restored, and how do we maintain a healthy level of skepticism that doesn’t devolve into something worse? The internet and social media have clearly accelerated and inflamed this troubling trend — what role can they play in reversing it? What do we do with institutions that society has declared broken, and what must institutions do to rebuild trust with those they serve? Perhaps most importantly, how can we work to regain trust with one another? This is a vintage Chautauqua set of questions that go to the heart of what we believe here: that we cannot fully discover the truths of life in isolation. This week we put our convening authority to the test, and I implore all who join in the conversation to enter into each lecture, encounter and artistic expression — and all the conversations that follow on Bestor Plaza, at the Athenaeum and on our porches — truly seeking to understand before being understood. Last week’s lecturer R. Alta Charo referred to Chautauqua as a “big tent community.” I couldn’t agree more, and that’s the reason that we will look at “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Society” in our companion Interfaith Lecture Series. Socrates and his student Plato entered the discourse on ethics by way of a question that became central in Greek thought and is still relevant today: What is the relation between virtue, excellence of character, and personal and societal happiness? For the flourishing of a society, the Greek philosophers believed in reverence and justice, as well as the objectivity of goodness, as the links for knowing what is good and doing it. In this week we will discern the ethical foundations of a fully functioning society, and we will use Chautauqua as our lived experiment. I’m excited about the ways that these two sets of conversations intersect and push us to explore the best in human values.
This is also a big week in the arts, as Saturday night our beloved Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra makes its return to the Amphitheater stage. I’m grateful for the flexibility and creativity demonstrated by Maestro Rossen Milanov and these musicians in preparing for an unusual but greatly meaningful season of music-making. The CSO will also combine with our incredible Music School Festival Orchestra on Thursday for a joint performance not to be missed. That same night in the Performance Pavilion on Pratt, the students of Marlena Malas’ Voice Program stage the opera Hansel & Gretel, and elsewhere in the week Chautauqua Theater Company and Chautauqua Opera Company continue runs of the thought-provoking productions Blood at the Root (Wednesday) and Scalia/Ginsburg (Friday). And don’t forget to find your way to our amazing Chautauqua Visual Arts galleries, or to watch our Piano Competition winners in Sunday’s recital. It’s a remarkably rich week of artistic offerings.
Please allow me to close this week’s letter to Chautauquans with an emphasis on the first word of this week’s theme: trust. Each year I receive letters sent to my office and via email from Chautauquans who wish to express either delight or dismay about something happening on the grounds. I take each of these letters very seriously as a conduit into what you’re experiencing, and I endeavor to provide each one a response: sometimes from me and very often from a member of my team who is better suited to address a specific concern. I’m grateful to all who take the time to express an opinion. Each summer, however, I receive a very small batch of “anonymous” letters that are simply addressed to me with either no signature or a cryptic descriptor such as “a homeowner” appended. I received two such letters this week. I’d like to respectfully ask Chautauquans to lean into the word “trust” and to always sign your letters. Anonymous letters aren’t actionable, as they eliminate the ability to have a dialogue. Please trust that we value your opinions, but please also know that unactionable letters will unfortunately be that: unactionable.
Lastly, I want to express my deep thanks for the trust that so many Chautauquans have placed in our team to manage our beloved Chautauqua through the pandemic and into this first season assembly in person again. I recently came across this sign in my social media feed:
So many of you have stopped members of our team to share your gratitude for simply “showing up” this summer. We feel the same deep appreciation for you. As we enter Week Three, please know that I’m aware that lines are longer than we’d all like at the Brick Walk Cafe, that menus are more limited because of staffing shortages. At Chautauqua, we are down hundreds of seasonal employees compared to our usual summer. Thank you to all who have shown kindness to our front-line colleagues. Know that they are hustling as fast as humanly possible to make your Chautauqua experience a magical one. Know we are all grateful for your patience and understanding.
Trust, Society and Democracy. I can think of no better place to practice each than at Chautauqua. Welcome to Week Three!