June 30, 2016 8:03 AM EDT

Before there was the internet, there was Chautauqua.

Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.” He wasn’t so much talking about the lakeside town in southwestern New York State where I and 100,000 other people spend time in the summer, taking classes, attending concerts and lectures, sitting on a porch talking about what we’re reading, and drinking “Chautauqua tea.” (Founded in 1874 by Methodists, Chautauqua was long a dry town; this was a challenge at my wedding, though people somehow found a way around.) Roosevelt praised the whole Chautauqua movement, a network of preachers and teachers who promoted education, self-improvement, community, civility in discourse and civic-mindedness in spirit.

The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle is America’s oldest continuous book club; smaller Chautauquas sprang up around the country, and in the early 20th century, Chautauqua lecturers fanned out across the U.S. on tent tours, connecting rural communities to a larger world of ideas. Eventually radio, then TV, then the web played the same role. But first there was Chautauqua, then as now testifying to the ability of every individual, from any place or any background, to make learning a lifelong ambition and progress a personal cause.

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