CORRUPTING THE YOUTH

James Franklin
Macleay Press, 444 pages, $59.95
reviewer Peter Coleman
in The Weekend Australian, Review, October 25-26 2003

**NB: This book is due out in late November.

Apart from professional philosophers, only the young take much interest in philosophy. It fills that free interval in their lives when the young man or woman no longer accepts the discipline of family but has not yet submitted to the discipline of career, marriage and mortgage. It is a time of questioning. Why should I? What is the meaning of life?

Some unhappy souls never stop asking questions. They are the philosophers. Most young people lose interest and settle down - but not before they have picked up one or two philosophical ideas, which often influence them all their lives. They may include belief in God or in the superstition of religion, in the preciousness of life or in the rightness of killing deformed babies. They may even take the form of the "history wars".

James Franklin, mathematician, philosopher, scourge of academic wackiness and freethinking Catholic, calls his new book Corrupting the Youth in a nod to Socrates whose life and death raise all the issues: philosophers admire his courageous questioning of conventional ideas while conservatives, family mean and patriots condemn his undermining of established values.

Franklin's subtext is: What ideas will give meaning to our lives? More precisely, Australians have for 200 years lived by the Enlightenment ideal of humanism without doctrine. That idea is now exhausted. The young crave inspiration, but today they find nothing. This can't go on. "Someone will have to come up with something."

Franklin's history of Australian philosophy is his search for the something. He ranges far and wide - from murder (Bogle-Chandler) to moral turpitude (the Orr case), from Melbourne idealism and Sydney libertarianism to "Australian materialism" of the mind (notably D.M. Armstrong). There are chapters on the Sydney Push, feminism, Thomism and the Freemasons. But the longest chapter - on the pursuit of virtue without religious dogmas - is one key to the book.

It starts with Roman Catholic archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan's attack in 1879 on the secular state schools as "seed-plots of future immorality, infidelity and lawlessness".

Franklin thinks the archbishop had a point. But he did not allow for the moral resources of the secular state.

Its answer to the church was that non-religious state schools would develop virtue through civics, sport, cadets, the empire, classical languages, the heroic history of ancient Rome and, later, the Anzac legend.

In their time, as Franklin sees it, the state schools were amazingly successful. Their inculcation of temperance, thrift, self-control and hard work helped great sections of the population pull themselves out of the very seed-plots of vice that so alarmed Vaughan.

In the first half of the 20th century there were huge falls in the rates of murder, suicide, alcoholism and poverty. This remarkable success story, Franklin says, "has yet to be told".

But the state schools' influence went much further.

Franklin sees it in the Depression years; when central Europe turned to fascism, France wallowed in defeatism and England adopted appeasement, Australia remained aggressively democratic and honoured its dead despite the demeaning attacks on its war memorials by the likes of University of Sydney professor and philosopher John Anderson.

Franklin also celebrates the contribution of non-Christian, classical education to Australian life, although this theme goes beyond state schools.

"A sound training in Livy and Cicero' helped produce incorruptible men of gravitas such as Victor Windeyer, Adrian Curlewis, Hermann Black, Hubert Murray, Norman Cowper, John Latham and John Peden. Who today has their knightly sense of public service, courage and command? We lost a lot when we threw away classical education. The tradition is not entirely dead. But Franklin only finds one contemporary exemplar: Justice James Wood - a product of Sydney's Knox Grammar, school cadets, lifesaving and the old legal education - who became a famous NSW royal commissioner into police corruption.

Franklin's conclusion is that if Vaughan were alive today he would consider himself to have been vindicated.

The moral and mainly Christian consensus on which secular education thrived has evaporated and our schools teach nothing. The archbishop would probably agree that his church schools are no better.

This book does not answer all the questions it raises. It does not tell us the meaning of life. But this mathematician tells us more about our history than do many historians. He knows that knowledge of a country's philosophical past is the surest guide to where it is going and where it should go.

One unusual feature of the book should be noted. It has many thousands of footnotes. They source Franklin's history not only to the mainstream but to a vast number of obscure and fugitive publications.

He has even dug up some Freudian juvenilia of mine deconstructing Hamlet. I wrote it in 1948! I asked him: Is no one safe? His answer was: "No. But it all makes for a fascinating story".