C.S. Lewis at Belsen

July 26, 2018 — 4 Comments

belsen school

Boarding schools are somewhat rare in the United States. And that is a good thing.

C.S. Lewis attended three, and he considered two of them to be torturous. The first he came to refer to as Belsen, in reference to the deadly Nazi concentration camp. His older brother, Warnie, had moved to the same school when he too was nine, three years earlier.

The headmaster of Wynyard School in Hertfordshire was an Anglican priest named Robert Capron who was quite unhinged. In fact,

The school that [his father] Albert Lewis, after careful study and deep reflection, chose for his sons was run quite autocratically by a man who had already been prosecuted for cruelty to his students and who, within a very few years, would be certified as insane. (The Narnian)

Honestly, there is a proper place for boarding schools—as long as they are not operated by lunatics.

As I finished seminary, a window opened for my wife and me to serve on the “mission field.” After serious prayer, we told the missions agency that “we will happily serve in any nation, discharging any type of ministry duties . . . so long as our children can remain with us.”

Some people are willing to make even that sacrifice. And they not limited to those in ministry. When I was stationed in the United Kingdom, the United Stated Department of Defense operated its own boarding school for military dependents at RAF High Wycombe. (Canadians attended as well.)

Leaving a Mark

It’s no surprise boarding schools left a deep imprint on Lewis’ psyche. For seven-plus months of the year, they controlled nearly every aspect of his life, from “reveille” to slumber.

He wrote about the repercussions in a variety of places, most notably his autobiography,  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. During a recent rereading of the collection of essays in Present Concerns, I enjoyed “My First School.”

The essence of the essay is anticipation—anticipation of good events, such as holidays, and ominous occasions (in this case, the return to the schoolhouse). Before exploring that subject, Lewis sets the stage by briefly describing the grim environment at Belsen.

The Head [Rev. Capron] had, indeed, a grown-up son, a smooth-faced carpet-slipper sort of creature . . . a privileged Demi-god who ate the same food as his father though his sisters shared the food of the boys.

But we ourselves were . . . Beaten, cheated, scared, ill-fed . . .

Later, as a Christian adult, Lewis was able to glean some good even from these demoralizing days.

Life at a vile boarding school is, in this way, a good preparation for the Christian Life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven. (Surprised by Joy)

It teaches one to live by hope.

In 1911 Lewis would be sent to a far better school, Cherbourg House in England. It was a prep school for Malvern College where he would follow his brother as a student. Although this school was healthier, it possessed its own shortcomings.

Cherbourg House was the tragic place where Lewis lost his childhood faith.

The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. I will try to set down what I know of the conscious causes and what I suspect of the unconscious.

Most reluctantly, venturing no blame, and as tenderly as I would at need reveal some error in my own mother, I must begin with dear Miss C., the Matron. No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health. She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.

Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life. Guides were even rarer then than now.

She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition. Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.

I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men. I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief . . .

But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural . . . (Surprised by Joy)

In closing with Lewis’ sad slide into atheism, this brief look at his experience in boarding schools affords us a sobering reminder.

Christian parents (indeed, all parents) are quite wise to be cautious about where they have their children schooled. After all, educators also expose their students to their particular worldviews.


I have written previously about education in the column “Were All Valedictorians!

For a brief consideration of Belsen’s influence on the Chronicles of Narnia, turn here.

4 responses to C.S. Lewis at Belsen

  1. 

    There are so many tales – in literature and biography – of British boarding schools (Shiver)

    “It teaches one to live by hope” A good lesson, but whew..apparent to the resilient child later?

    There is a place for them – if done well. I know 2 boys who were sent to well known military styles one in the states. One boy sent by father who attended it as a boy – and then went on into the Navy well prepared. (His son was not the same temperament, but at least it kept him out of trouble and stuffed some knowledge in that head) The other, well, the school probably saved him – redirected towards more positive future as he was/is very bright, model handsome, far too much on his own early, and got him away from his lunatic mom. Seriously – he did much better there.

    As you say, the staff makes all the difference – one way or another.
    Interesting Lewis’ experiences and the effects on him

    • 

      That a good point about how many literary and biographical accounts of these schools can make one shiver. The bullying that was allowed in many settings seems like the way we assume most prisons operate. Predatory people tend to dominate the culture…

      Good examples of young men who benefited from boarding schools. The military prep schools are a unique breed. I’d be curious to read a study comparing them to other educational avenues.

  2. 

    Hi Rob,

    Keeping your kids close. I am a big fan of being part of your kids education. We have such a short time with them anyway, right?

    Gary

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