The Society for Research into Higher Education

Max Weber and the rationalisation of education

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By Geoff Hinchliffe

In order to understand our own times, it can be beneficial to go back in time, in order to take advantage of a fresh perspective from afar. One thinker who was uncannily prescient about some of our current concerns in higher education was Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber has always been held in high esteem, of course, by sociologists. But I think what he has to say about the effects of bureaucratisation are of interest to anyone working in higher education at the moment.

Weber thought that the methods and techniques of bureaucracy were all-pervasive in a modern industrial society. These techniques were by no means confined to the state: bureaucracy colonised all forms of commercial and institutional behaviour – including education. And these techniques were also accompanied by a certain habit of mind which Weber called rationalisation.  In his book, the Protestant Ethic, Weber famously invokes the ‘iron cage’ which modern man had constructed for himself, signifying the development of procedures and behaviours necessary for a modern economic order whilst “the rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems to be irretrievably fading” (Weber, p. 181-2).

This ‘iron cage’ – the cage of rationalisation – includes :

  • the development of techniques to reproduce predicted behaviours;
  • a social and vocational world configured so that the efficacy of such techniques become progressively easier to achieve;
  • and crucially, the construction of a self whose personality and values are characterised  by methodical conduct

The academy may have escaped the iron cage for many years – until now. This is illustrated, for example, in a standard text of pedagogy addressed at university teachers in which the strategy of ‘constructive alignment’ is commended, ie the alignment of learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment. We are told that as a consequence “students are ‘entrapped’ in this web of consistency optimising the chance that they will engage appropriate learning activities” (Biggs and Tang , 2011: 97-98). Over one hundred years on, this eerily echoes the metaphor of the iron cage.

Is it possible to evoke a different way of conceiving activities and discourses that do not have rationalisation at their core? Alasdair McIntyre provides us with one picture through thinking of activities in terms of practices. The idea is that a practice generates its own goods and its own goals and purposes; therefore criteria of excellence are internal to that practice. In this way, it could be said that a practice generates its own rationale through an internal logos.

We can see how this might work with subject disciplines on two levels. First, the internal  epistemological structure and processes of a discipline can generate conclusions, theorems and interpretations through a discourse that, in principle, can operate independently of rationalisation. Second, normative recommendations, because they are the outcome of this internal discourse can address needs and concerns premised on a construction of the self (for example ‘the patient’) that does not necessarily depend on the discourse of rationalisation.  Moreover, given that long established practices (such as subject disciplines) have traditions, these may act as powerful counterweights to rationalisation.

I suggest that a practice, so conceived, can serve to keep the depredations of rationalisation at bay and to diminish its effects. Decisions to interpret internal goods through the lens of rationalisation may of course be made and often are: but these can be contested through the invocation of the claims of the internal goods of that practice. But there are problems, all the same.

First, what if the bulk of practitioners have succumbed to rationalisation? How would they know? For example, is the oft-repeated injunction that processes of enquiry be evidence-informed driven by a rationalisation that discourages more speculative enquiries?

Second, subject disciplines, considered as practices, require some kind of institutional setting to flourish and so the inevitable question arises as to what extent its practitioners owe the institution that enables them to engage in their practice in the first place. Yet whilst institutional demands that derive from rationalisation may be difficult to resist, given that the institution is dependent on a practice retaining its internal integrity perhaps academics are in a stronger position than is sometimes thought.

Perhaps academics do not have to fashion an iron cage for themselves after all.

Biggs, J and Tang, C (2011), Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Open University Press

MacIntyre, A (1981), After Virtue, London: Duckworth

Weber, M (1930), The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd

SRHE member Geoff Hinchliffe is co-convener of the SRHE Academic Practice Network and Honorary Lecturer in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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