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The Journal of Higher Education 75.3 (2004) 362-363

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Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning by Thomas Neville Bonner. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xviii + 400 pp. $36.00. ISBN 0-8018-7124-7.

Abraham Flexner's accomplishments assure him a place in the higher education pantheon. Thanks to Thomas Bonner's Iconoclast, we finally have the biography Flexner deserves and readers seek. It fleshes out the story of the 1910 "Flexner Report" on medical education that catapulted him and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) into national fame. It gives context for Flexner's critique of the American campus, published as Universities: American, English, and German in 1930. And one gets a lively account of his creating the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. As with any good biography, Bonner's chronology raises questions about Flexner's significance. Readers are left to find his appropriate niche within the gallery of influential higher education figures.

Was he one of the "Captains of Erudition?" That is not quite right because it brings to mind bold university presidents such as Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia, Daniel Coit Gilman at Johns Hopkins, William Rainey Harper of Chicago, and Charles Eliot of Harvard. Flexner was the "Coxswain of Erudition." He was the little guy, with the megaphone at the back of the higher education boat, who was vocal and observant. He set the pace and steered the course. Unlike the heroic presidents who built great institutions, he did his work outside the campus. The philanthropic foundation and its external reports were the tools of his trade. New York City, not the college town, was his nerve center.

This book will appeal to higher education scholars and to those who study how philanthropy developed during the early twentieth century. Bonner's profile of Flexner fits well with recent biographies of such contemporaries as John D. Rockefeller, Sr, and also supplements Ellen Condliffe Lagemann's classic works, Private Power for the Public Good: A History of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1983) and The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy and Public Policy (1989). Flexner's embrace of a private foundation as a powerful force in national education coexisted with his distrust of the federal government in educational policy. This formula strikes us as peculiar today—but it made sense to a generation of establishment leaders a century ago. To understand this ethos, a splendid companion work is Otis Graham's Old Progressives and the New Deal.

Flexner's critical studies of college and university curricula made him an iconoclast. The corollary was that Flexner became an icon himself. After dismantling the shoddy professional schools he surveyed, he helped to build a new higher education establishment, much of which is still in place today. Whether as an iconoclast [End Page 362] or an icon, his influence was remarkable because he never was a professor, had no medical degree, held no Ph.D., and was not a part of campus life.

Flexner was heir to the Horatio Alger tradition in which a boy from a modest background relies on "luck and pluck" to gain a foothold in the American establishment. Flexner's novel twist was that unlike "Mark the Match Boy" of the 1870s, he relied on formal education for his deliberate ascent. Johns Hopkins University provided the opportunity he sought as an undergraduate and then served as the model for his reforms. He personified the ideal of schools and colleges as a new elevator for talent in American society.

To understand Abraham Flexner, one also has to make sense of his two prodigious brothers, Simon and Bernard. The three were an American Dream Team of poor Jewish boys who gained prominence. Whereas the Marx Brothers of Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo parlayed vaudeville wit into success on the new big screen of Hollywood movies, during the same era the Amazing Flexner Brothers leveraged higher education as a means of advancement and, later, as an object of reform.

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