Liberal arts with French in the heart of old Europe

Chavagnes International College occupies the site of a 13th-century Benedictine priory which became France’s first junior seminary authorized after the French Revolution in 1802. In 2002, it was transformed into an international Catholic boarding school for boys, and now it is opening another exciting chapter in its history. Ferdi McDermott, the college’s headmaster, talks to Newman Society journal editor Joseph Pearce about the school’s new Bachelor of Arts degree.

Explain the new developments at Chavagnes.

In September 2018, Chavagnes Stadium, a new Liberal Arts study centre, is teaming up with its local Catholic university, the Institut Catholiques d’Etudes Supérieures and the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin to offer a fully-fledged BA in the liberal arts with French. Based on the successful University of Buckingham model of a two-year intensive degree, over 80 weeks of class, the main subjects for study are: literature in English; French and French literature; mathematics/science; philosophy/theology; and history. Aimed especially at future teachers, the course is also suitable for anyone aiming to achieve a solid grasp of the essentials of our Western intellectual tradition before embarking on study in other fields.

What is your target audience?

Chavagnes Studium is in the pioneering phase. Because we are associated with a boys’ school, our initial target audience is young men aged 16-21 who have finished their high school studies. We hope to move beyond this demographic in the future, as our project grows. Young ladies who are interested are encouraged to get in touch, too. We cannot provide accommodation for them yet, but we could help them find other solutions nearby. We hope to be able to create a college-type residence for female students in a few years’ time.

We are targeting European students who are seeking a liberal arts degree more or less on the established U.S. model (such as one might find at places such as Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom, Thomas More College, etc.), but who want to be able to do that in Europe, the continent which produced almost everything they will study in such a program. In the U.S., we feel that young Catholics might be attracted to our program precisely because it is situated in Europe and gives them a chance to experience European culture first-hand and to visit—in a structured way—places that have been seminal in the development of western culture. Also, Europeans and North Americans will be attracted to the concept of the two-year intensive degree, which is more and more being talked about in Europe. The main advantage is the lower cost, but there is also the more intense intellectual experience, which suits people who are ready to work hard and don’t mind lots of reading.

Who are the teachers?

We have a number of very distinguished professors, including Professor Anthony O’Hear, OBE, director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. There are visiting professors from further afield, such as Joseph Pearce, senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society, who will be helping with some lectures on literature. All of our other teachers have doctorates from leading European universities or are doctoral candidates. Also, we will be making use of French teachers at the local Institut Catholique; and during an 11-week special study session in the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, they will be receiving philosophy tuition from the heirs of St John Paul II who taught in the faculty there for 25 years. So, the teaching is first-rate and in small classes. And for the male students living in the hall of residence on site, they will be reliving the life of the scholars of Oxford or Cambridge in the late middle ages! Well, of course, they will have modern plumbing and heating. But they will be very much part of a community of learning, with attendance and Mass and meals together as part of the community experience.

Will your students be eating French cuisine?

Yes, French food. And French wine. But the community itself is an English-speaking one, rather like the English exiles who founded the English College at Douai during the times of persecution. Going further back in time, of course, to the days of Richard the Lionheart, this part of France was under the English crown. We are also in a very special part of France: the Vendée, which resisted the French Revolution in favour of the Church and the King. It is a real cultural melting pot …

So, this program is unique?

Our ambitious new humanities programme, inspired by the work of Liberal Arts colleges in the United States, is a first on this side of the Atlantic. We are indeed unique. If readers want to be part of the adventure as a student or teacher, they can check out our site and tell us what they think. We will be delighted to hear from them.

Are there any financial aid packages available?

Good question. Our program will not qualify for a federal student loan. But the total cost of a BA degree over two years will be about $60,000, which is cheaper than most other offerings on the market. For our first year, we do have five sponsored places which would qualify for a 50% discount. Beyond that, we are mainly interested in recruiting the right sort of people to be the pioneer graduating class of 2020. We would love to hear from anyone who would like to be part of this important new adventure for the Church in Europe.

What prerequisites are there for potential students? Do they need to speak French?

We are focusing on recruiting young people, aged 16-25. And, as I’ve said, we are able to offer a total package for young men including a student residence. They need to have successfully completed their high school education, either in a normal school or through homeschooling. It is possible to apply online, via our website. No prior knowledge of French is required; we will bring you up to the required level without intensive teaching. Apart from French language and literature, most other teaching is in English.

Is there an application deadline?

We need to receive completed applications by the end of May to be sure of obtaining the necessary visa for September.

Do we have to come over to France to find out more?

No, I will be speaking in New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut in late February/early March. You can also visit our comprehensive website or arrange a Skype or telephone call with me or one of the other professors. The details of my speaking engagements are listed on the website.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.