Chavagnes : Ten Years On

For C and S:  Always ready “to beat to quarters”

« If something is worth doing, it is worth doing [even] badly.» Gilbert Keith Chesterton,

"Education: Or the Mistake about the Child."  in What’s Wrong with the World.

I. A school is born.

Chavagnes International College - a British Catholic boarding school for boys, situated in western France - is an extraordinary school filled with extraordinary people. This is the kind of banal introductory phrase one might find in the prospectuses of schools all over Britain. And yet, whereas in most cases such a phrase is totally vacant of meaning, in our case it is probably the most important piece of data we have about this school. Why? Because to understand the uniqueness of Chavagnes and the people in it is to begin to understand why and how it works at all.

This account is going to focus on progress towards an ideal within our young school; I could harp on our mistakes (yes, there have been quite a few of them), but instead I am going to concentrate on the lessons we have learnt over the last ten years . What I am going to describe in this tale is a shift from a school that has often inspired disbelief (“how can you possibly manage it?”) to one which might inspire confidence (“I can see that you have found the right way to do things.”) Such a school, I am hoping, might have a role as a kind of blueprint and not just as a marvellous oddity. So what makes Chavagnes such an extraordinary place? I had better start with myself, and what led me to want to found a school in the first place.

Me, in my 20s
Me, at 20
While I was studying languages at the University of Edinburgh in the early nineties I decided I wanted to study for the Catholic priesthood. It has been something at the back of my mind since boyhood, but in my early twenties the idea became more and more real and I decided to follow it through. Most young men entering seminary these days have already completed a university degree, so they have in general a higher level of education (and perhaps less humility) then the boys who blithely signed up at seventeen or eighteen back in the 1950s.

Another important point, quite apart from education, is that they tend - I think - to have a more romantic streak to them. With all the bad publicity surrounding the priesthood these days, its reduced status in modern society and the declining place of the Church in public life, any young man contemplating this way of life today is going to be committed to an idea of the priesthood which depends as much on his romantic ideals as on the reality on the ground. Young men these days are drawn to the Church because they think they can achieve great things: they come with an agenda. They are attracted to a model of priesthood that they themselves intend to create once ordained.

So what was my agenda? What sort of fulfilment was I seeking in this role? As a natural reactionary, I suppose that an important part of the story was that I wanted to be able to recreate and make credible a traditional and vibrant form of Catholicism that I half remembered from my early youth and half imagined from listening to reminiscences of aged relatives. It was a kind of Catholicism where the priest was very much the romantic hero; the modern social worker with falling congregations, slaving over a hot photocopier and attending endless committee meetings held no appeal whatsoever, even if I detected and admired the stamina and example of many priests I knew. No, the priest I wanted to be was something very close to Bing Crosby, playing opposite Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s. This was a priest who would be able to influence for good or ill the destiny of all the children in his parish. And because he was a good priest, he would want them all to enjoy academic, human and spiritual success. My ideal priest was a teacher and community leader, like Jeremy Irons in the Mission (but without the unhappy ending), who would bring the Gospel to life and make it work, without needing to compromise.

But the priesthood did not work out. I found those responsible for my formation far too liberal and they found me far too headstrong. I think we were both right in our assessment of the situation. So what next? Thinking back, my main encouragement towards this pro-active, counter-revolutionary way of thinking was from four teachers at school who were all in training to become Anglican non-stipendiary ministers. And so my thoughts turned more and more towards education. I began to see that the kind of role I felt drawn to could perhaps more feasibly be played by a teacher than by a priest. In the same way as Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School Days, I began to become more and more nostalgic for the kind of purposeful and cultivated environment I had known at school, and even to remember the debt I owed to my own Headmaster, a man nearing retirement, who - in the 1980s - managed to bring back Prayer Book assemblies and extra hymn practices in our 1,000-strong boys’ school, as well as making sure we all understood the value of family life, the truth about war and about the horror of abortion, the need for honesty in business, the sense of Christ as the measure of all things and many other good things besides. With hindsight I can see he was perhaps unique for his time; resisting, quite openly, co-education as a liberal modern evil until his retirement. In Who’s Who, Mr. Dobson’s entry listed his interests as “wine, women and song”, and this Rabelaisian side of him all added to the charm. I felt then and still do now, like Tom, revisiting Rugby and looking up at Dr. Arnold’s pulpit, remembering his old Head Master, and many other of my teachers, with gratitude: “If he could only have seen the Doctor again for...five minutes; have told him all that was in his heart, what he owed to him, how he loved and reverenced him, and would by God’s help follow his steps in life and death, he could have borne it all without a murmur. But that he should have gone away for ever without knowing it all, was too much to bear.”

And so, after a few years’ publishing religious books, including a rather crusading magazine for Catholic schools, I managed to organise the finance and the manpower to start my own school, in rural France, near Nantes. Chavagnes International College opened on my 31st birthday on 2nd September 2002, with ten pupils and ten teachers, including a priest and a vintage Christian Brother who had been a writer for my teachers’ magazine for the preceding five years.

Seeking inspiration

John Senior
I think that this personal story is important: it makes it easier to understand the background to the choices that I made when beginning Chavagnes International College back in 2002. For one thing, I had been printing, selling and reading books (between 1995 and 2001) that were very much a part of what the Americans call the culture war. One of them, the Restoration of Christian Culture, was written by an American academic, John Senior, who was drawn to the same kind of educational vision as I was: a heady brew of Mr. Chips, Dr Arnold, mixed in with the medieval monks and the pagan Greeks. To describe him thus is not deliberately to belittle him nor to minimise the enormous influence he has had in Catholic and conservative evangelical circles in the USA. He belongs, with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, to a brotherhood of twentieth century intellectuals who have prophesied about most of the ills that modern life seems to throw up.

Thomas Arnold
John Senior was instrumental in the conception of a course, taught at Kansas University in the 1970s, called the Integrated Humanities Program. The course involved three professors and 200 students who simply read together all the classics of western literature from Homer to Dostoyevsky. It was an inspiring course, and its students found it ‘life-changing.’ For this reason, a specially founded Committee for Academic and Religious Freedom had the program closed down, after the parents of several students went to the papers: some of their sons, I believe, from good Democratic Protestant and Jewish families, had gone off to France to become Benedictine monks. Forty years on about a dozen alumni are still monks and a number returned to the States in the 1990s to build a new Abbey in Oklahoma. Now, isn't that the real thing? Senior is a disciple of the real. He advocated, for example, the abolition of central heating, so we could all feel the real, authentic, cold; and that instead of disappearing off to their cozy bedrooms, teenagers would join the family in the sitting room, around the fire, playing the piano, reading books, and talking together.

Senior’s whole philosophy of education was informed by the Benedictine Spirit. In an essay entitled “The Spirit of the Rule”, he comments on the relationship between the Rule of St. Benedict and the vocation of the schoolteacher.

St Benedict
“According to the Benedictine view,” he states, “against the prevalent establishment, and exactly consonant with that of Socrates, St. Thomas, and Cardinal Newman, the purpose of a university is not – I say it sweetly, with reverent reserve – the purpose of the university is not research but friendship… The student must not only receive the knowledge, counsel and correction of the teacher, he must fulfil them, which means that he must understand, not just parrot or comply; and by learning, become assimilated to the spiritual, intellectual and moral model of the teacher”.

“Humility”, Senior observes, “is a necessary condition of learning” in the context of “the relation of disciple to master of which docility is an analogue of the love of man and God, from whom all paternity in Heaven and on earth derives.”

Love, then, - Love of man and love of God, as ultimate expressions of the Good, the True and the Beautiful - is what education is all about. That love, in keeping with the Gospel, would not give “a child a stone when he asked for bread” , but rather proposes an experience of that which is beautiful, good and true, naturally only wishing to give of the best. Such an education is formative in that it creates habits of virtue.

Many places of learning are still committed to what we might call the transmission of the canon, have lost sight of this finality. “Even the best colleges,” Senior observes elsewhere, “such as the last survivors of the Great Books Movement where they read ‘the best that had been thought and said’, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, suffer from a failure in finality, opting for what amounts to the position of the philosopher in Lessing’s myth who, when the gods offered him either truth or the search for truth, chose the search!”

Me, at 40
So, at the end of twentieth century, at what many acquaintances thought a particularly inauspicious time for such an undertaking, I started a Catholic boarding school for boys, trying to put the flesh on the bones of what Senior and others had envisaged as the only feasible means to the “Restoration of Western Culture”, boy by boy. We had all the answers, and we wanted to give them to the next generation. From a strictly philosophical and theological point of view I still think we were right. But from a practical point of view, we had a lot to learn both about ourselves, about running a school and about living and working as a Christian community. And yet, there ought to be no shame about the fact that one has learned a great deal, even as a teacher, in a school; that is what they are for, after all.

To be continued ...


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