This just about nails it, I think. More on "Is Australia a Christian Country?"

23 Jan

At the beginning of Chapter 10 of Corrupting the Youth: a history of philosophy in Australia, James Franklin quotes Lord Castlereagh’s instructions to William Bligh (1805):

In a Settlement, where the irregular and immoral habits of the Parents are likely to leave their Children in a state peculiarly exposed to suffer from similar vices, you will feel the peculiar necessity that the Government should interfere in behalf of the rising generation and by the exertion of authority as well as encouragement, endeavour to educate them in religious as well as industrious habits.

You may be forgiven for thinking not much has changed in two hundred years!

Franklin continues:

In a small penal colony, there is room for only one public culture, or public philosophy. The State will decide what it is, as it decides everything else. The locus of conflict about the shape of the State cult will be the "education question", since there the State will need to provide detail about how the youth are to be instructed in the meaning of life.

The question was, what to inspire the youth with? Who was to exhort the young to virtue and what model of virtue were they to supply? In England, the problem was in principle solved by the existence of an Established Church. The Prime Minister appointed the bishops, the churches were hung with regimental flags and the Tory Party at prayer heard the word of God read in familiar accents. In return God granted his favoured race dominion over palm and pine. As for transmission to the next generation, the whole package could be safely left in the hands of schools and their chaplains, and the Anglican clergy who made up the staff of both universities. This happy symbiosis did not transplant well to the Australian colonies. Demographics were against it, for a start: too many Irish, Scots, non-conformists, Jews, virtual atheists, embittered radicals, ticket-of-leave men on the make, bush lawyers and general misfits. "Germans, Californians, Chartists and Socialists, and all manner of undesirable people" [W C Wentworth 1853]; not enough squires. Currents of thought marginal in England could flourish in the colonies like the rabbit and the blackberry, unchecked by natural predators. The Anglican Church was never fully Established in the Australian colonies, in the legal sense, and did not in practice get the help from the State to which it thought it was entitled. According to Governor Bourke [1833],

In a New Country to which Persons of all religious persuasions are invited to resort, it will be impossible to establish a dominant and endowed Church without much hostility and great improbability of its becoming permanent. The inclination of these Colonists, which keeps pace with the Spirit of the Age, is decidedly adverse to such an Institution; and I fear the interests of Religion would be prejudiced by its Establishment.

The Anglican bishop, Broughton, expressed the opinion that though the Government might tolerate other churches, it should subsidise only the one it believed true. Instead the Government subsidised the clergy and schools of all denominations, leaving the unmistakable impression that it believed none of them…

[Franklin: pp 213-214]

Franklin goes on to trace through the subsequent centuries the various "models" used to inspire (or tame) the young; his account of the period of my own education is very accurate, including quotations from the Social Studies and Civics text I used at Sutherland Primary — which makes me feel quite nostalgic. He also points to the role of the Boy Scouts, but rightly wonders whether one of the Scout virtues (unquestioning obedience of one’s elders and betters) was really a good thing.


The dilemma of how to encourage our youth stays with us, of course. I do love, however, the contextualising Franklin has given as it is rooted very much in our Australian experience. Towards the end of the chapter he refers to the role of English literature teaching in addressing this, correctly tracing (with due reference to Paul Brock’s great research in this area) such phenomena as the influence of F R Leavis/Sam Goldberg, and further back Matthew Arnold, and beyond that the place of such classics as Livy,Virgil (and Hesiod) and Cicero as perhaps even more significant than Christianity in shaping an Australian moral tradition (not to mention Surf Lifesaving and the Anzac myth) –  secular in a rather special way that did not exclude a certain religiosity but detesting, generally, dogma.

Good stuff. As I have said in other posts, I by no means share all Franklin’s attitudes, being somewhat more comfortable with pluralism and relativism than he is, but this chapter of his history is one of the most accurate summations I have ever read.

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3 responses to “This just about nails it, I think. More on "Is Australia a Christian Country?"

  1. Jim Belshaw

    January 23, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Neil, you are going to draw a response from me, but not tonight!

  2. Arthur_Vandelay

    January 24, 2008 at 1:18 am

    The great thing about your blog is that I never fail to learn something new. Fascinating stuff!

  3. ninglun

    January 24, 2008 at 8:18 am

    I should hope so, Jim. And thanks, Arthur; that is a very graceful comment, especially from you. 🙂

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