Rationalism: The Dominate Epistemology of Educational Administration and Organizational Theory

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It is important to understand the philosophical forces that shape how we view our world. Those forces serve both as guides and as blinders. More often than not we can best understand these forces by locating ourselves in a very different cultural perspective. Even then we may not see ourselves clearly. Sometimes the forces of our culture are so obvious to us that we donít evens see them as forces. We donít see these cultural forces as having an historical existence because we are too much a part of the fabric of our culture. We can not gain perspective. We are, as it were, deep in the trees.

Rationalism is one of these. Rationalism is the dominant mind-set of our age. As an epistemological belief structure, rationalism forms the very foundation for how we behave as organizational and societal members. Below are some definitions of the word rationalism from the Oxford English Dictionary.

    1. The view that reason is the only guide leading to the improvement and progress of the human race and that adherence to religious or other "non-rational" beliefs is out dated.
    2. A theory (opposed to empiricism or sensationalism) that regards reason, rather than sense, as the foundation of certainty in knowledge.
    3. The practice of explaining in a manner agreeable to reason whatever is apparently supernatural in the records of sacred history. Also the principle of regarding reason as the chief or only guide in matters of relations.
    4. To organize economic production or the like according to rational or scientific principles so as to achieve a desired or predictable end; esp. to reduce the number of personnel or inputs in such a way that the remainder are more efficiently deployed.
There are other definitions but the ones above are adequate to give us a working understanding of the precise meaning of the term. The dictionary defintions of rationalism typically list a reliance on reason as the first definition. Rationalism is a theory of thought that proposes reason itself as a source of knowledge and that reason is superior to sensory and theological perceptions. Rationalism is fundamental to the way administrative theory has been taught for all of the 20th century.

Michael Oakeshott, about whom there is an article in the library, was a British political philosopher who has written much about rationalism. He was concerned with modern expressions of rationalism, not the enlightenment version of Ben Franklin and the 18th century. Oakeshott saw rationalism as the most dominant force shaping modern society. For Oakeshott, rationalism meant the following:

    1. Rational thinking is independent thinkingórational thought is that free from any obligation to any authority other than the authority of reason. Think about this. One takes oneís positions based on oneís own reasoned approach. Is this what my wife means when she says I donít listen to anybody?
    2. Rational thinking is anti-authoritarian. That thinking that is based in custom or habit or tradition is the enemy of thinking that is grounded in reason. Is my sixteen year old being rational when he complains that he should not have to obey merely because his father says so?
    3. Rational thinking is fundamentally skeptical because there is no opinion or espoused truth that is above the questioning of reason. Is this sort of a theological zero-based budgeting?
    4. Rational thinking never doubts its power to determine the value or worth of an opinion of idea through a reasonable analysis of its merits and demerits.
    5. The rationalist is a person who finds it hard to believe that anyone who thinks honestly and clearly and with the same evidence will think differently. The pathway to action or truth or opinion lies in the evidence and all rational minds will draw the same conclusions if they have the same evidence. There is always a solution if we can but find it.
    6. The rationalist has little interest in history since there is an insistence that one not be bound by what was done before since the power of analysis might suggest a different approach. And, every moment in time is a new moment with new forces at work. Recall the popular aphorism that "this is the first day of the rest of my life" which implies that all that has gone before is not essential. This is a very rationalist statement.
    7. Reductionism is one of the classic behaviors of the rationalist. That is, the rationalist will reduce every tangle and variety of human experience to a set of principles or variables. You might note that almost all statistical analysis is based on measures of central tendency and thus is reductionist in principle.
    8. The rationalist finds invention preferable to repair because new systems perform better in that they are adapted to new conditions. The rationalist thinker holds that each moment is different than the one before. Therefore, it is illogical and unreasonable to use an old solution to a present problem just as it is to use an old building when newer ones will function more efficiently.
    9. The rationalist does not recognize change unless it is self-conscious change, change that is planned and intentional. Accidental or haphazard change is not real change.
    10. The rationalist is very goal oriented and seeks to solve problems. In fact, rational thought typically recognizes only problems. That which is not a problem is beneath notice. You may wish to remember this when you write a thesis or dissertation.

Here are some examples of rationalism at work in daily life. When my wife and I set out to buy a car, we may use a rational approach to doing this. We may gather data on different types of cars. We may look at Consumer Reports to find out about trade in values and repair records for different types of models. We may create our own list of concerns and come up with a scheme for rating our possible choices. If we behave this way and select our car based on what our reason tells us, we will make a rational choice. Most of us do not buy cars this way, but perhaps some of those highly rational people you identified would.

In evaluating our children, we typically use a rational approach. We use cognitive tests. We justify these by all sorts of scientific research. And, deep in these tests, those who have greater powers of rational thinking will do better. Here is an example from a typical IQ test. A boy and a girl, walking together, step out with their left feet first. The girl walks three paces in the period while the boy walks two. At what point will both lift their right feet from the ground simultaneously?

Such algorithmic problems are endemic in school. They are popular because there is a known solution. Rationalists always believe there is an answer that can be found. And, developing ways to test our ability to find known answers is one of the major goals of standardized testing.

If you look at the planning processes of schools, you find much the same thing. For years, Nebraska school districts have been obligated to develop strategic plans. These plans exemplify rationalism in action. In universities, we seek to rationalize decision-making in organizations. We identify clear processes to go through and to identify goals and objectives. Once we have consensus on those goals, we plan how to achieve these goals. Our very planning processes are predicated on the assumption that we must have known solutions and that once we do, our rational minds will find these solutions.

At the heart of rationalism is a firm conviction in the value of knowledge. The fact that our society is dependent on new forms of knowledge provides evidence of the pervasiveness of rational thought. For Oakeshott, knowledge came in two forms: technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the knowledge that is constructed using reason alone. It is the kind of knowledge that can be formulated into rules and principles and deliberately learned. If I tell you that cooperation has been proven to be a better form of behavior in organizational life than competition, I am giving you a rule that is constructed from reason. Machiavelli, for example, would argue against this rule. Nonetheless, experiments in game theory have clearly demonstrated that there are larger payoffs to cooperative behavior than to competitive behavior in terms of how human beings relate to each other in the short term. We do not know what the results would be in the long term because we cannot model the long term. Darwinian evolutionists might argue that competition if an inescapable fact of existence and survival is the genetic goal that drives all behavior. At any rate, one of the reasons we have higher education systems is to provide us all with technical knowledge. Our modern societies have invested an enormous amount of resources in building a foundation of technical knowledge at the expense of the second kind of knowledge.

The second type of knowledge is practical knowledge and it is the knowledge that can only be acquired by doing. It is not a reflective knowledge and for the most part those who have this knowledge "do what they do" without attempt to describe it or rationalize it. Indeed, rational researchers have sometimes found that people with great expertise at practical knowledge are incapable of describing the component pieces of what they do. Thus, I know how to develop a mathematical model that will determine what factors contribute most to educational attainment in school and test the predictive value of this model. But, I canít bend metal and iron to make a gate for my back yard. Indeed, few blacksmiths are around today to produce such an invention. I can take my car to a mechanic who will plug it into diagnostic machinery and this machinery will tell the mechanic what piece of the car to replace. But, I canít find a mechanic who could tune the Venturi carburetor on my old Volvo. We have rationalized our automobiles.

Rational thinking devalues practical knowledge. It cannot be taught so it cannot be brought within the realm of rational thinking. Practical knowledge cannot be formulated into that which leads to general principles. It is knowledge that is held in the mind of the practitioner. It is one personís knowledge. It is based on one personís experience. For those of you interested in power relationships, this may raise new thoughts in your mind about wherein lies hegemony in our society. For most of us, the decline in practical knowledge means we pay more for the few in our society who go through the years of apprenticeship to acquire it. Plumbers cost us more; carpenters cost us more; locksmiths cost us more. Eventually, however, our rational way of behaving will turn even these individuals into anachronisms.

Now, does the individual you selected as the most rational person you know fit within this analytical frame?