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I want to tell a brief story, a romantic tale that answers my appetite for allegory. It takes place in the 1830’s, a happy decade for blurring the Romantic and Victorian. Yet it’s hard to separate this tale from its origins in Enlightenment culture or its destiny in the present. The tale plays out here, in Boston, in the United States of America. (Clearing the Romantic/Victorian divide seems much easier if at first we take a step away from Great Britain).

The hero of this tale bears the familiar markings of a romantic idealist. After a sickly childhood in Boston, immersed in reading, he attended school away from home in Edinburgh, then back at Harvard. Like others of this type, he dropped out of college before finishing his degree. He turned to the sea, his early adulthood spent “sailing before the mast” to Britain and the East Indies before returning again to Boston (Everett 25). Later in life, stunned by the early death of his wife and two children, he once more took to sea. A restless melancholic, he roamed eastward. In Asia Minor, he tracked the path of Childe Harold; he sought out Missilonghi. Through the ports of the Mediterranean and Mideast he sailed, with “vast projects revolving in his mind” (Everett 30). In 1836 he died of disease in Bombay. Ah, romance.

Yet our hero, John Lowell, Jr., was also one of the most powerful industrialists and politicians in New England, “distinguished,” his biographer reports, “for . . . assiduous attention to his duties, and the practical and business-like view . . . he took of every subject of discussion.” (Everett 28). Dutiful, practical, and business-like, the middle part of Lowell’s life was nonetheless bracketed, or shall we say framed by periods when he wandered, read and dreamed. Before he died, he carefully planned to give his enormous fortune to fund (to this day) one of the “vast projects” that accompanied him during his travels.[1]

The Lowell bequest established an academy without walls; no money could be allocated for building – Lowell wanted nothing resembling a monument. The Institute offered courses of free lectures to the public. It was the first privately endowed lecture series.[2] Widely popular and copied throughout the nineteenth century, the Lowell Institute recruited star scientists, scholars and writers of the period, among them Lyall, Agassiz, Dickens and Thackeray. At various points in its history, local universities were drawn by the Institute’s magnetism, its romance of open access education. Harvard University’s involvement spawned its own school of continuing studies; a later partnership established WGBH, for the public broadcasting of learning. For ninety years the Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-sponsored non-degree courses in technological training, known as the Lowell Institute School; the program is now overseen by Northeastern University. Curiously, persistently, John Lowell’s philanthropy facilitated both free extramural education and money-making ventures within the ivory tower; the promise of liberal arts and vocational training for industry. Before online learning, then, and at its nineteenth-century heart were the history and dream of the lecture.

We may not need Lowell’s story to remind us of the conundrums of lecture culture, with its unstable ties to the university. Who outside the academy today learns from the lectures of Hugh Blair, Hazlitt, or Coleridge? From Edgeworth’s Lectures for Children; from Carlyle, Emerson, Ruskin – or Woolf? Who but a trained scholar would dig up from the 1860s the Afternoon Lectures on Literature at The Museum of Industry on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin; or Miss Catherine Sinclair’s Toe-tology . . . : a course of lectures to be delivered (at the foot of Arthur's seat) . . . to prove . . . there is more expression in the foot than the head.” And yet all these examples reveal that the culture of public lecture was and is and can be our culture. Give the Greeks the seminar, and the eighteenth-century the coffeehouse discussion section; Romanticists and Victorianists jointly own the lecture.

Lowell’s tale persuades me to fear not: there is nothing frightfully alien about Coursera, or EdX, or TED; about the pressures of the dean or board of trustees at my large state university. Like it or not, this story is ours. We need to own up to and understand what Lowell and his ilk have bequeathed to us. What is a lecture? What does it do? Is it an information dump or a reading? A performance? Entertainment? Essay? Or promise– of what? Is it an effective bridge from the academy to the general public? A media movement from page to stage to ether?

We should know the lecture. We should teach it.