Faithful Education in the Old and New World
One of the pleasures of spending much of one’s life on the lecture circuit is the opportunity it affords for seeing what’s happening in contemporary Catholic culture. In the last week, for instance, I have had the chance to witness developments in contemporary Catholic education on both sides of the Atlantic. At the beginning of the week, I flew to the Vendée region of France to speak at a conference at Chavagnes International College, and then, at the end of the week, I flew from France to Orlando in Florida to speak at the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society. At both conferences, I was greatly encouraged by new initiatives in Catholic education which bode well for the future.
I have followed the progress of Chavagnes International College since its founding in 2002, at which point I had almost joined the small group of pioneers who formed its inaugural teaching staff. I was recently married to my American wife, Susannah, and we were living at my home in England. Having just finished writing my biography of Hilaire Belloc, we needed to choose between two job offers, one of which would take us across the Channel to Chavagnes, where my friend Ferdi McDermott was founding a Catholic boarding school for boys, and the other would take us across the Atlantic to Michigan, where the pizza billionaire, Tom Monaghan, had just founded Ave Maria College, later to metamorphose into what is now Ave Maria University in Florida.
As an agrarian romantic, I liked the idea of setting up home in a French village, at a new school which had as its campus a former seminary, built soon after the French Revolution; and yet, as a gritty realist, I realized that life in the United States, at a college founded by a billionaire, offered a more secure future for my wife and any future children with whom we might be blessed. Tempering my romantic tendencies with the prudence of realism, we opted for a new life in the United States, moving to Michigan on September 7, 2001, four days before 9/11. Meanwhile, Chavagnes International College, which had been in embryonic form when we departed for the New World, opened its doors to its first students in the following year.
Although my wife and I, and our one-year-old son, had visited Chavagnes in 2003, I had not returned until last week, an absence of 15 years. It was much the same as I remembered it, though improvements had been made to the dilapidated seminary buildings. The huge Ursuline convent still dominates the skyline. The windmill still straddles the summit of a distant hill. And the church still stands resplendent at the centre of the village as a sentinel of the Faith.
As it was at its founding, Chavagnes International College is still a boarding school for boys at which classes are taught in English and at which a British-based curriculum is followed. I noticed, however, that a far higher proportion of the students were French than had been the case in the early years, suggesting that the school is sinking cultural roots in its adopted country, and suggesting also that a growing number of French Catholic families are seeing the value of having their children taught in English, thereby assuring that they will become fully and fluently bilingual.
The one major change at the college is its establishment of the Chavagnes Studium, an undergraduate program, launched this year, which offers a fully-accredited BA program in the Liberal Arts for 2018 in partnership with the local Catholic university.
The conference at which I spoke offered a microcosmic slice of contemporary Catholic Europe, with a smattering of the New World thrown in for good measure. Those in attendance came from England and Scotland, and from both sides of the Irish border, north and south. Others had come from France, Belgium, Italy and Malta, while the New World was represented by those from the United States, Canada and Chile.
Having had my old-world batteries recharged in Chavagnes, I flew from France to Florida for the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society. Although very different in many ways from the conference that I had just attended in Europe, the Chesterton Conference shares with the conference in Chavagnes a mission to revitalize and reinvigorate contemporary Catholic education. Apart from its advocacy of the life and works of G. K. Chesterton, the American Chesterton Society has established a network of Chesterton Academies across the United States, teaching the liberal arts in the spirit of Chesterton himself. Thus the conference incorporated a symposium on Catholic education and facilitated a meeting between representatives of the Chesterton Academies and a representative of Homeschool Connections, the latter of which offers online classes in the Catholic liberal arts, enabling the two organizations to explore possible avenues of cooperation between their respective pioneering educational missions.
Although my week away from home has been truly exhausting, it has been truly exhilarating also. It is indeed a boon and a blessing to have had my finger on the pulse of such exciting new initiatives in Catholic education.
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