God in the Administrative Machine: Religion and the Construction of Public Education in the United States and Australia, 1830-1880
Compared with the schooling systems of other nations, American public schools are notoriously decentralized and sharply delineated from non-state education. This paper considers the origins of these peculiar features through a comparison with Australian schools, which, like American schools, began in a decentralized manner, but later consolidated administrative authority in centralized state bureaucracies. In this paper, I highlight the role of religion and religious conflict in shaping these divergent administrative trajectories. Religious dynamics gave rise to contrasting state-building projects — a bottom-up “building with God” project in the United States, and a top-down “ecclesiastical displacement” one in Australia — which in turn contributed to divergent administrative outcomes. In the United States, a harmonious relationship existed between Protestant clergy and public educators, such that the construction of public education was seen, to a great extent, as an extension of a religious mission. This mission was further colored and given urgency by rising tensions between Protestants and Catholics, which spurred localized clerical and educational activity in the decades before the Civil War. In Australia, by contrast, a conflictive relationship between denominational and public schooling sectors, and competition among the various denominations, led to the evolution of a byzantine and inefficient system of educational administration in the 1860s. Attempts to rationalize this system while reducing opportunities for religious conflict to spill over into educational administration led to the progressive centralization of educational authority into official ministries. These contrasting histories suggest that the degree of competition and conflict among each nation’s various religious denominations; and the relationship between religious leaders and state educational officials, were crucial to the state-building process as it unfolded in each nation. The analysis provides fresh insight into why certain states adopt particular modes of administrative extension, and also contributes to our understanding of how religion contributes to processes of state formation.