Introduction

Article excerpt

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson, 1816

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. - Thomas Jefferson, 1820

Ever since its inception in February 1916, just five months after the opening of the University of British Columbia, The Vancouver Institute has been devoted to the concepts of public education and civic discourse. Over its 82-year existence; this all-volunteer organization has had a remarkable history, evolving from a small, local, public-spirited organization on the far fringes of the British Empire, to what Sir George Porter, former Director of Britain's Royal Institution, has ranked second only to his own institute, founded in the 1800s (Purvis, 1986, p. 9). The Vancouver Institute's original objectives - still resonant today - were: "the study and cultivation of the arts, sciences, literature, music and kindred subjects, by means of lectures, exhibitions, publications and such other means as may from time to time be deemed advisable" (Robson, 1980, p. 16). [See Figure 1]

Three individuals in particular played a critical role in the conception and promotion of The Institute: Lemuel Robertson, Associate Professor of Classics at UBC and Chairman of the Archaeological Institute, Frank Wesbrook, the university's first president, and S.D. Scott, editor of the Vancouver News-Advertiser. Despite the central role that these individuals played in the genesis of The Institute, the ultimate success of this organization was guaranteed by an extraordinary confluence of several distinct, economic and social phenomena within the emerging intellectual and professional community of Vancouver. As Eric Damer (1995) describes, in his comprehensive thesis on The Institute's first 23 years(1), the emergence and survival of The Institute was ultimately the product of the mutual interest of local learned societies, professional organizations, the new university and community leaders [Table 1]. Each saw in The Institute an opportunity to promote their own particular goals of academic and professional education. This remarkable fusion of "town and gown" is demonstrated by the list of organizations which lent their formal support to The Institute [Table 2] by sponsoring lectures and providing speakers in their own subject areas. The composition of the first Institute council in 1916 mirrored the coalescing of town and gown interests, maintained to this day [Table 3]. While several of these organizations eventually disaffiliated from The Institute to pursue their goals independently, other organizations such as the BC Medical Association, BC Music Teachers Federation, and the League of Nations Society subsequently sought affiliation with The Institute. This remarkably diverse range of interests was reflected in the nature of The Institute lectures. Table 4 lists the first year of lectures, and Table 5 provides a short summary by subject matter for the first 2 decades.

Damer identifies several important trends in the initial 23-year period: (1) a shift in the nature of UBC's association with The Institute from an early host for the lecture series to the central sponsor of the organization's primary function of public education; (2) a moderate shift in the focus of lecture topics from academic "arts and science" topics to "people-interest topics" to broaden the public interest and participation in the lecture series; and (3) shifting fortunes with respect to attendance and financial health, due in no small part to the changing locus and timing of lectures during The Institute's formative years [Table 6]. (See also Williams, 1956).

It took several years for The Institute to follow the University to its Point Grey campus, but once this transition had been successfully accomplished, the long-term stability and viability of The Institute was assured. …