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Thomas Neville Bonner.† Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xvi + 376 pp. Ill. $36.00 (0-8018-7124-7).
Anyone who reads this wonderful work by Thomas Bonner will likely marvel that a thorough biography of Abraham Flexner has not been published before. Those who know Flexner largely through his famous 1910 report on the abysmal state of contemporary American and Canadian medical education will be surprised at how meagerly that legendary accomplishment reflects his total contribution to Western education generally.
[Flexner's] life had been full of remarkable, even historic, achievements. From a modest, severely limited background, with little formal education, for twenty years the mainstay of a large family, he had gone on to change forever the education of physicians, left decisive marks on public education, and created a new kind of postdoctoral learning. . . . He raised more money for education than any individual of his time or since. And his prescriptions for greater flexibility and experimentation in medical education; for more modern public schools with higher standards; and for world-class institutions of advanced learning have largely been heeded. (pp. 307-8)
The concrete manifestations that Bonner described to support this summary begin with the rigorous preparatory school that Flexner founded in Louisville, Kentucky. They leap improbably to his damning report on medical schools, which overnight made him a national figure and led to the distribution of more than $50 million dollars by the Rockefeller Foundation to bring a few promising medical schools up to Flexner's gold standard—the medical school at Johns Hopkins University—and finally, to the founding and shaping of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton (IAS). [End Page 246]
In all his endeavors except the last, Flexner was enduringly successful. When he brought together world-famous intellects to form the IAS, his role changed drastically. In his previous parade of remarkable successes, he had functioned as a relatively remote critic, consultant, and surrogate philanthropist for projects that others were to execute. As the IAS evolved, he became what amounted to the hands-on steward of a small, immensely talented, and fiercely independent coterie of visiting scholars. In the process he learned, to his dismay, that the job of university president is more akin to that of a zookeeper than a sheepherder. His conception survived, but it did not spread as did many of his other innovations.
By any standards, Flexner was a highly complex man. With exemplary objectivity Bonner described Flexner's traits and actions in the contradictory terms used by family, friends, and foes alike. By his champions, he was credited with originality, patience, loyalty, towering ambition, unbridled confidence, unbounded capacity for work, practical shrewdness, self-righteous adherence to principle, and an often hidden sentimentality. Less-sanguine assessments usually derived from Flexner's specific endeavors, such as the 1910 report and the inevitable enemies he accumulated as he directed the distribution of millions of dollars from the Rockefeller Foundation. To his antagonists, again in Bonner's dispassionate eye, Flexner could be opportunistic, rigid, flippant, elitist, morally self-assured, and, as his power grew, increasingly cocky, arrogant, egotistic, and pugnacious. Personality aside, over some forty years Flexner became something of a Delphian oracle for higher education in America and abroad. He was consulted by supplicants for money or advice on all manner of projects, and the turn of his thumb either up or down usually determined the outcome.
It is worth noting that Flexner, a Jew, became the single most influential architect of higher education in the Western world at a time when anti-Semitism was far more overt than it is today. He and his brother Simon, of Rockefeller Foundation fame, abandoned their childhood orthodoxy and married Christian women. Abraham later labeled religion in general as "organized human cowardice, a spiritual cocktail analogous to the drink a man takes before dinner to mellow himself" (p. 140). It remains problematic whether Flexner perceived his youthful religion as...