Hellcat, life-saver, survivor and one-man quality agency

Iconoclast
December 19, 2003

The name of Abraham Flexner is no longer one to conjure with. Indeed, it is a safe bet that a good many of those fortunate academics who spend a year or two as visiting fellows at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton have no idea that Flexner was its chief begetter and first director, let alone that his inspiration was All Souls College in Oxford. By the time Flexner took on the task of creating and running the institute in the early 1930s, he was in fact close to the end of his career.

It had been an astonishing career. Flexner was born in 1866 in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the nine children of Morris and Esther Flexner. Morris arrived as a penniless immigrant, having narrowly escaped death from yellow fever in New Orleans; Esther's family was better established but almost as recently arrived. The Flexner parents believed devoutly in the value of education and, until Morris' business collapsed in the depression of the 1870s, they pushed them energetically through the local schools.

When Morris suffered financial and psychological collapse, the children flowered; first, the oldest brother scraped up the money to send Abraham to the new Johns Hopkins University; then Abraham did the same for his brother Simon - who became the most prominent medical researcher in America and the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. But it was a long time before Flexner lived up to his early promise.

After some years teaching at high school, he launched his own school, a forerunner of the Lincoln School in New York that he created many years later, and a forerunner by a few years of Dewey's Laboratory School in Chicago. He was a teaching genius; he had the knack of seeing what a student was capable of and always setting himself to work with the students' strengths. Described as a "hellcat if you didn't live up to what he thought you were capable of", he was much better remembered for the enthusiasm of his encouragement. Hankering after wider horizons, he sold his school after a dozen years and spent three years as an independent scholar, working as a graduate student at Harvard University and then in Germany; this revealed that, at the age of 40 and after some 20 years of family responsibility, he was not the fizzing, imaginative researcher he might have been at 20. Instead, he was a world-class theorist of higher education and a genius at organising other people to discover how various parts of the US - and later the world's - higher education worked, and what might be done to make it work better.

A book on the US undergraduate college got the ball rolling; The American College was typical of Flexner's work throughout his life. It described in mordant prose the educational shortcomings of the American general college, cut through all the sentimentality that obscured the fact that educational standards were atrocious and that the four years of college not much more than finishing school for upper-class young men, and proposed ways of putting some educational backbone into college programmes. Thomas Bonner summarises the message of The American College : "The American system of education, he argued, was a disjointed amalgamation of poorly defined preparatory schools, loosely organised colleges and amorphous universities made up of undergraduate, graduate, and vocational studies. He held to this judgment for the next 50 years."

The popularity of these thoughts with luminaries of US higher education such as the autocratic Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University may be imagined. Almost everyone concerned with running an American college or university complained that it was unfair to hold up the German gymnasium and the German university as a model. Not everyone was hostile, however; crucially, Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard, was squarely on Flexner's side, and Henry Pritchett of the Carnegie Foundation browbeat his board into appointing Flexner as his assistant director.

Out of that came the great achievement of Flexner's life - the investigation into US medical education that appeared in 1910. It destroyed a majority of the existing medical schools, and in the process saved the lives of many thousands of Americans who were no longer put at risk by illiterate, innumerate and uneducated medical practitioners.

To describe Flexner as a one-man quality assurance agency is grossly flattering to the QAA; with minimal assistance he inspected some 150 schools in 18 months and judged two-thirds as "utterly hopeless". The noise he caused was tremendous, and not all of the opposition was just shrugged off; he, too, worried that closing ill-equipped medical schools in black colleges would leave black Americans with no doctors, and that demanding an adequate scientific background would exclude working-class students from medicine.

For the next 30 years, Flexner was Amer-ica's most respected analyst of a broader range of social problems. The report on medical education was followed by an investigation into the way European countries controlled prostitution. But it was his views on higher education that gained him the widest audience. The American readiness to teach anything and everything and call it "higher" education always enraged him; home economics and advertising copywriting got a terrible thrashing in the book Universities: American, English, German that began as a series of lectures at Oxford University in the late 1920s. The message was utterly unsnobbish; he thought, unfashionably then as now, that the real insult to the underprivileged was to palm them off with drivel and pretend it was the real thing.

But the world played a curious trick on him in the end. He thought that the only way the US would catch up with Germany as a place of serious research was by establishing research institutes - whence the thought that the Institute of Advanced Study would be an American All Souls, detached from the work of undergraduate education. The strange conjunction whereby Nazi Germany exiled its best minds to the US, and US universities created well-funded and highly ambitious research schools, falsified his diagnosis and rendered his proposed cure irrelevant.

To a degree, Bonner's book ends on a dying fall, and the triumphs of Flexner's middle age are the prelude to a long superannuation - he left the institute in 1936 and died in 1959. But Flexner's personality, the ups and downs of his multiple careers, and the interest of the issues to which he devoted his energetic existence make Iconoclast a thoroughly good, indeed a thoroughly exhilarating read.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning

Author - Thomas Neville Bonner
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Pages - 376
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 8018 7124 7

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