Abraham Flexner

Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) devoted his life to the improvement of teaching and research in America, initiating the modern American medical school and serving as first director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Abraham Flexner was born on Nov. 13, 1866, in Louisville, Ky. He attended the Louisville High School and returned to it as a teacher after his graduation from Johns Hopkins University in 1886. Four years later he opened a college preparatory school in Louisville and put to a successful test his belief that inspired teaching plus the enthusiasm and competitive spirit of youth made the usual administrative rules, records, reports, and classroom examinations unnecessary.

Flexner married in 1898. In 1905 he began graduate studies in education at Harvard University. His concern turned to the institutions and practices of graduate and professional training. He traveled in England, Germany, France, Canada, and the United States. In 1910 his report to the Rockefeller Foundation on medical education set into motion comprehensive reforms which led to the subsequent rise of American medical education to world leadership. Flexner followed this with an investigation of prostitution in Europe and with further research and writing on problems of teaching.

As a consultant with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and, from 1913 to 1917, as assistant secretary of the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, Flexner prepared a statement published as A Modern School (1916). In these pages Flexner emerges as one of America's chief spokespersons for what became known as educational progressivism. He believed in universal education for literacy and a rigorous and demanding academic curriculum for the gifted and interested. During most of the 1920s Flexner continued working for the improvement of medical education as the director of studies and medical education of the General Education Board.

Flexner next began examining higher education, visiting universities in England and Germany. In 1930 his Universities: American, English, German appeared. He saw universities not as popular institutions reflecting the desires and whims of society but as intellectual leaders. "Universities must at times give society, not what society wants, but what it needs," he wrote. In 1930 he was asked to establish the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and to serve as its first director; now he could put his ideas concerning the place of research in society and the world of learning into practice. His answer to a new fellow who asked what his duties were was typical: "You have no duties, only opportunities." He served as the institute's director until 1939 and as director emeritus thereafter. He died on Sept. 21, 1959, in Falls Church, Va.


Further Reading on Abraham Flexner

Flexner's views on universities are discussed in Alexander D. C. Peterson, A Hundred Years of Education (1952). Further background on education is in Stuart G. Noble, A History of American Education (1938; 2d ed. 1954).