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Libraries & Culture 40.1 (2005) 63-84

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Contextual Culture of the Master's Degree and the Decline of the M.L.S. Thesis:

An Exploratory Review Essay

Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning. By Thomas Neville Bonner. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 432 pp. $36.00. ISBN 0-80187-124-7.

Higher education has never really been free of critics, nowhere more so than in the United States, where until recently higher education has enjoyed a near mythological stature within the collective mind. American colleges and graduate and professional schools have been instrumental in providing necessary training and education for the nation, signaling a qualified success.1 However, as with any human enterprise, such activities must undergo scrutiny and periodic pulse reading. Abraham Flexner proved to be one of the most powerful observers of higher education, and to this day he would comprehend many of its ills with measured concern. Bonner's biography is a well-conceived tour de force, situating Flexner within the intellectual and educational milieu in which he operated.

Of humble origins, Flexner joined the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and evolved into an influential figure affecting the course of medical education by releasing his 1910 report, which paved the way for research-based hospitals and medical scientific education. Later he became a leading figure in philanthropy through the Rockefeller Foundation, and founded the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. A flawed individual, Flexner is portrayed as a champion of criticism and reform, a watchdog of higher learning.2 A staunch supporter of law and medicine within the academy, he held professional programs other than the former as philistine, better offered elsewhere.3

Iconoclast is a richly drawn texture of intellectual history and a necessary signpost for further reflection. It masterfully addresses an [End Page 63] individual crusader whose ideas and concerns loom large for all professional programs, especially where research and scholarly acculturation are concerned. The influence and concern Flexner exercised are best illustrated when viewing the protean nature of master's education in America. The drive to professionalize various occupations has led to the Flexnerian prognostication that higher learning was not only in jeopardy in his time but has metastasized into the unbridled enterprise it is today.4

When Abraham Flexner's Universities: American, English, German first appeared in 1930, it focused concentrated criticism on American higher education. Like a laser cutting through moribund flesh, Flexner left little to be misunderstood, so much so that higher education officials and the interested public knew exactly where his philosophy lay within the growing enterprise that was American higher education. Most striking was the added vehemence leveled against graduate education in the main but especially professional education.5 In light of the almost universal celebratory response to American higher education and its continued success since Flexner's first critique, graduate education has evolved into a massive enterprise. Compounding Flexner's position, which at times could appear Eurocentric and unmistakably elitist, coexisted an equally strong disdain for classical education as conceived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially as it manifested itself in American colleges and universities prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Evenly tempered by a willful sense of purpose and idealism bordering upon the purist form of Bildung, Flexner's perceived attack on American higher education must be seen as an attempt to foster a sustained respect for the life of the mind for the seriousness it deserves. Consequently, professional education within the confines of such sacred groves as the University of Chicago, Harvard, or elsewhere, including some large state universities (e.g., the University of Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley or Los Angeles), was an aberration to be excised from the otherwise robust body of higher education.

Incisive and cogently critical, Flexner navigated among the diverse and fluid definitional concerns of the public perception of what constituted proper higher education and the accommodating forces of utilitarian-driven...


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