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President Michael E. Hill Delivers the President’s Address to the Bestor Society

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill addressed a gathering of the Bestor Society on Aug. 5, 2018. The President's Address is traditionally the highest-profile speech the Chautauqua president delivers during the Chautauqua season. His remarks as prepared for delivery, with light edits, are provided below.

My heartfelt thanks to each of you for spending your Sunday afternoon here and for representing some of Chautauqua’s truest friends.

It is an honor to gather with you in this magical environment with this picturesque view of our beloved lake behind us, in the shelter of this tent to shade us from the sun, and serenaded by the exquisite sounds of a chamber ensemble that exemplifies the promise of Chautauqua and of the future of artists and artistry.

The front porch of the President’s Cottage provides a similar view over the lake, and I often sit there in the quiet of the early morning and think about the generations of people who have stopped here to take in this extraordinary vista.

This view has inspired countless art, dance and music students; lifelong Chautauquans, and, I’m sure, a few new visitors who might not yet have begun to claim that label.

It’s a natural place to take pause and to ponder the points of the morning’s or afternoon’s lecture; a spark of inspiration ignited in a Special Studies class; a special moment shared with a partner, a grandchild, sibling or parent.

More than a few of my predecessors have likely sought inspiration here as they wrestled with the challenges of the day or framed their ideas and vision for the future — as well as solutions to problems that must have seemed intractable. Our history roots us, just as the trees all around this magnificent perch anchor and frame the scene below.

I am comforted by this company up here on the hill — the scores of Chautauquans over the past close to a century and a half who have struggled and celebrated, dreamed and dared.

And in thinking about what I wanted to share with you today, I couldn’t help but be reminded that that’s precisely what all of you have done.

The members of the Bestor Society are the heirs of Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent, and all Chautauquans, past and present, who have uniquely embraced our struggles; rejoiced in our celebrations; who’ve named Chautauqua as their home and their priority; and who have made impossible dreams not-so impossible.

It is the people under this tent (and isn’t it beyond appropriate that we gather under a tent, just as the earliest Chautauquans did not so far from here) whose faces come to mind when we achieve a goal; when we make the decision to take a risk; when we contemplate the challenges of the future. And, indeed, we think of you as we strive for those golden rings of balance on our platforms and for what can sometimes feel like an elusive civil discourse in an all too shrill world.

We are in the midst of a singular period in the history of Chautauqua and in the world — a world whose brokenness we exist to contemplate and reimagine, to re-envision and heal. We remain relevant to the extent that we transcend individual needs and differences to advance our mission: The exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life.

Just as our founders challenged themselves to create a new paradigm for living in community, for stressing an exploration of the world that brought sense out of the senseless, we must continue to resist the temptation to choose sides, force division, and become increasingly ill-equipped to co-exist with ambiguity.

As we sit on this hill — in the company of Chautauquans of the past — can we imagine the Chautauqua we wish to sustain and create for those who will stand here when we no longer can?

We’ve been asking Chautauquans to dream with us a lot these past months, as we look to a not-too-distant 150th birthday for Chautauqua.

Many of you have been asked and have answered – at least in the silence of your hearts – the question: “if we succeed, what will Chautauqua look like when it turns 150 in 2024?”

Will it look just like it looks today? Will we still be asking questions about how to bring greater diversity these grounds? Will we still only imagine what a restored historic hotel will look like? Will we continue to wonder why one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses sits nearly empty for nine months every year?

If the listening sessions we’ve had all season with Chautauquans are any indication, I say, surely not.

Because in this season alone, you have dared to dream:

  • that this view will retain its magic, especially because it will overlook a lake that is on its way to full recovery; 
  • that the people standing here for future celebrations of the Bestor Society will resemble the complexion and the complexity of the nation and the world;
  • that our youth programs will again set the pace for innovation and engagement, and serve as a model of ways to infuse hope and promise in the next generation;
  • that our nine-week summer season will live outside of the summer months through robust online engagement and repurposing of the incredible content we generate every summer;
  • that a Chautauquan will one day be universally known as a noun for a person who engages deeply with someone who disagrees, knowing that only through engagement with another can we truly see the best in humanity;
  • that the name Chautauqua itself will be synonymous as the solution for a world that far too often lacks hope and understanding.

All of this may sound extremely lofty, but the world I describe and Chautauqua’s role in it, mirrors so much of our history. From the founding, radical idea at our very creation, to countless moments of struggle and determined success, to today, as we gather on a hillside where so many others have come to question, to dream and to create resolve, Chautauqua has never shied away from what’s hard to do, but has rather asked, What is it that is ours to do?

And in a year from now, because you’ve asked that question, we will convene here again with a blueprint for this next generation in Chautauqua’s life, one that represents a pathway toward attaining all of this and other dreams to which we have yet to give voice.

One my favorite educators, Parker Palmer, said:

“Humility is the only lens though which great things can be seen — and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible.” 

I assume the posture of humility before this esteemed group and say, thank you. Thank you for finding the inspiration to do all you have done and for that which you’ve yet to dream for Chautauqua. Thank you for standing on this hill with me and asking the critical question “What is ours to do in the world?” With your help, I believe the answer will be thrilling.

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