Formal and Substantive Rationality in University

Max Weber argued that practical rationality had replaced substantive rationality, because bureaucracy stressed a technical direction for means and ends. America’s education system knowingly operates in a bureaucratic fashion that follows Max Weber’s “Practical Rationality Theory”. Universities should not guide students using practically rationality, they should instead focus on using substantive rationally because this allows students to be more unrestrained and knowingly select their future for themselves based upon what they want to do. By continuing to use practical rationality as a method to get university students through school it may lead to a desolate lifestyle for students, permit them from reaching their full potential, and it can leave them with a sense of hopelessness after graduating, due to them not being able to expand beyond the bureaucratic system in which they were taught.

Colleges should move on from the “Come here, take these classes, get this degree, and then make money” mindset, which is technical (practical). They should instead move in a direction that allows critical thinking involving the futures of its students which can be achieved if they were to utilize substantive rationality.

What is the reasoning behind inflicting the practical rationality method within university? The reasoning is because of the bureaucracy within education, or more specifically university settings. The curriculum, objectives, and assignments are all set by professors and their higher ups. A study shown in The Chronicle of Higher Education, found that in college classroom settings, teachings tend to be too structured. It doesn’t allow students to have a free mind and to delve into the subject material themselves (Supiano).

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Based on this article, it seems that many college professors are focused on teaching subject matter at face-value. Students need to be able to use a wider variety of learning styles to have a deeper understand of what they are actually learning. The subject matter is one thing but being able to rationalize that information and apply it outside of the classroom is a separate level of understanding and growth. It seems that colleges only care about getting money and pushing out degrees without necessarily caring about the development of the students. For this to take place in the type of bureaucratic setting it’s “practical” for them to keep a regimen of what they want out of their students. It is understandable to use practical methods while people are young because it is a simple way to help develop the minds of youth growing up, but once high school and university hits these people are ready to start exploring who they are and what they want to do. It is impossible for them to do this if they are on a “conveyer belt” of limited possibilities and chances.

According to Max Weber, practical rationality can be defined as actions that are usually taken to get to a certain goal (Ritzer and Stepnisky 2013). You have a goal and you take normal and reasonable ways. These ways or “steps” are usually based off of past experiences, values, and etc. When applying this to the bureaucracy system in university, it can be seen as those in power taking the ration steps when deciding the fate and work of the students in that university. Students live a lifestyle of just doing what is asked of them and no more. They follow directions when given and are awarded just like everyone else. While there are clubs here and sports there, what is really important are their academics. If practical rationality is continued to be used, then they will have nothing to show by only following the standard university education given to them. Once a student graduates, not many know what they want to do, let alone get their dream job. Many students do not immediately settle into a career right after university for this reason. They are not prepared, and they still do not realize what they are capable or what they want to do. Instructors give every student in their appropriate classes the same work and they expect the same products. High grades a and a basic understanding of the material they taught. Most student can do the work given and follow instructions, but is that all? Why must that be the safe limit to that students’ capabilities? Life is already full of hassles, demands, deadlines, and unforeseen events. Everyone goes through stress, it is a part of human life naturally. When adding on the stress of boredom in a rigid university it is naturally going to take its toll on a student. Without the permission for a student to try and attempt the unknown in terms of their capabilities, how will they know what they are actually good at? There could be an Einstein hidden among students, but professor would never know because that person would be given the same exact assignments that make them simply fall in line like everyone else. After graduation most college students do not immediately seek employment, or they are not hired immediately.

The concept of ‘substantive rationality,’ on the other hand, is up for interpretation. It is full of ambiguities (Ritzer and Stepnisky 2013). It is not formal and does not follow only one types of action in order to reach its goal. There is room for diversity and choices to fit that particular person and situation. It shows only one element common to all ‘substantive’ inquiries: especially, that they do not hold themselves to mention the purely formal and practically plain actions. So, they will not restrict themselves to the basic curriculum being forced upon them by university. If students were able to voice their opinion more about the work, they would like to submit or inform instructors of the things they also believe are necessary to learn that would help. Breaking out of the normative patterns results in many beneficial factors. For example, travel studies. Students should not be limited to learning only in their comfortable university setting. Travel studies are proven to benefit the student in ways that not only helps them mentally, but socially as well. According to researchers from, students that study abroad are more likely to graduate than student who do not, community college students are more likely to transfer to a four-year university, and also gain intercultural understanding, while building enlightened nationalism (Anon 2019). Not many universities care to provide this opportunity for their students, and at times while these programs are there many universities do not share or advertise these chances that would be meaningful to students. College should not only be there to enhance a person knowledge, but also their entire being as a person. College students are still in that growing stage mentally and they need to be stimulated in a manner that is not basic and constantly the same. Students are at a prime age to have their self-growth that will contribute to reaching their future potential not only for themselves but also their future employers and peers.

It is safe to assume that not everyone in America is the same, correct? With this being stated, it is also fair to assume that everyone has a different learning style that fits them best. During grade school the curriculum is always similar, form learning to alphabet, all the way to being able to do basic algebra as a high school senior. The world is changing every day, and so are the people within it. Businesses do not want the basic machine-like university student that made excellent grades on there assignments. They want innovator and creators, who will bring something new to their businesses. If universities are running in a manner that reflects the production of goods in factories, with the goods being varies degrees and certifications, then they should expect to possibly receive similar outcomes just like those factories. What is to be expected is every student having the same skills and knowledge with nothing to set them apart or make them stand out from the rest. The harsh truth is that colleges are a business. This is not to say that every single university is the same. Not every school operates in a way that restricts the development of its students. Some actually want to produce graduates that are special and will change the world for the better. The point is that by only going with a practical rationality mindset in these bureaucratic school systems it will not work because the people coming out of it could be confused or not up to par with who they could really be. Substantive style objectives are better because they are more beneficial to students in the sense that it allows them more free thinking and ability to reach their full potential as people and future workers.

Works Cited

  1. Anon. 2019. ‘Independent Research Measuring The Impact Of Study Abroad | NAFSA.’ Retrieved February 1, 2019 (
  2. Ritzer, George, and Jeffrey Stepnisky. 2013. Contemporary Sociological Theory And Its Classical Roots. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Supiano, Beckie. Colleges Teach Students How to Think. Should They Also Teach Them How to Thrive? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 65, Issue 10

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Formal and Substantive Rationality in University. (2022, Apr 21). Retrieved from

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