Skip to main content

The Idea of a University

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

Universities—American,English,German. By Abraham Flexner. New York: Oxford University Press. $3.50.

This book is a compendium of current opinion on a subject that we have been discussing more furiously than intelligently for the last twenty years. Mr. Flexner has kept a great deal of the sound and fury, but he has added a personal perspective which is based on rather unusual experience with the subject-matter. It is said that he once conceived a plan of training for young American university administrators which would have taken them to all the European universities, allowed them to observe their machinery and taste their atmospheres, and then brought them back to save American education. This recalls Satan’s conversation with Jesus on the mountain-top, but it seems that the young Americans did not yield to the temptation. Mr. Flexner carried out his own plans and delivered a series of lectures under the auspices of the Rhodes Trust at Oxford and wrote this book for all of us to read. It confirms our present low opinion of American and, to a less degree, European universities.

The axes of reference for Mr. Flexner’s perspective are drawn in a chapter which is entitled “The Idea of a Modern University.” This he associates with Cardinal Newman’s book, “The Idea of a University,” by comparison with which the present book suffers greatly in my opinion. Perhaps this discrepancy is inevitable with the qualification, ‘modern,’ which Mr. Flexner has given his subject. The axes of reference are intellectualism and social service. They are, in Mr. Flexner’s mind, at right angles to each other, and any specific fact of modern education is to be plotted by its distance from these pure mathematical lines. This is nothing new, but it is important to keep it in mind as one reads the book. The graph of the perspective is then drawn in, first, by placing the facts about American universities which any American knows only too well in two classes, pure research and practical training, and then transferring them to the graph paper. This is done in great detail and sharp distinction, so that we get the nearer points of the large perspective enlarged and simplified for our instruction. The same distinctions are made in the facts of English universities, but there is less detail and much foreshortening. Finally the German university is placed almost as a single point at the vanishing point of the picture. It has in fact been taken at the beginning as the standard of judgment, and the distortions are to be understood as consequences of Mr. Flexner’s point of view. It is impossible to quarrel about points of view or to refute consequences drawn from them. The book is a very persuasive condemnation of ourselves and a very suggestive preachment of what we ought to do. In short, we are overwhelmed by ‘service’ in our universities and we ought to eliminate it ruthlessly in behalf of intellectualism. The fact that only a minority of Americans will agree with this is proof of the point. Perhaps more will agree after they have thought the evidence over.

I find the book appalling in what it omits; in other words, there are other points of view from which the evidence could be viewed. Some of these would involve a softer judgment, some a more severe one. Accepting the same axes of reference, I should like to propose, for illustrative purposes only, another point of view. This would allow the introduction of some consideration of the present state of the intellectual arts and sciences, in other words, the subject-matters of modern education and the judgments of value that we make on them. This is completely omitted from Mr. Flexner’s treatment because he is chiefly concerned with the issues of administration and ‘civilization.’ He is a student and a scholar only in a secondary sense; that is, he is at present a student of administration and civilization. First-hand and continuous contact with any given subject-matter at present would make his preachments and weighings look different. The case is much worse than he makes it.

Mr. Flexner sees the English and the German universities giving in more and more to the American sins of service, immediacy, practice, and organization. He himself proposes some of these sins as essential to their further growth and proper functioning. The fact is that we and the Europeans have turned to these substitutes for education because we have lost the sense of our subject-matters, and Mr. Flexner’s ideal of research as the progressive contribution to human knowledge has brought us to our present confusion. We have lost our intellectual nerve; we do not now know what is worth knowing. Until we recover a sense of subject-matter, there is no use preaching or organizing. Intellectualism and civilization in this book mean no more than democracy and liberty mean in a speech by Herbert Hoover. If I may turn to preaching, again by way of illustration of an alternative point of view, we must practice a new kind of research which shall not contribute increments to human knowledge, as bricks to a brick-yard, but one which will contribute form to a material, the form of a house to building material and the tools we have amassed. This would involve scrapping on a large scale as soon as it got under way. Mr. Flexner would eliminate three quarters of what goes on in a modern American university; does he know that any of it is worth keeping, or what should be added to it? I should suspect that there are in many of Mr. Flexner’s eliminations subject-matters which are as important as the classics to which we cannot return by any direct route. We must find the values in what we have and can get, and the greatest obstacle to doing that is the prevalence in this country of the very point of view which Mr. Flexner has taken. Research must go on, it must be made more efficient in its present methods, we must contribute to civilization. I raise a previous question: What is intellectualism? What means are at present available for discovering what we have, so that it may safely and humanly be followed. There is no doubt that it is slipping, and I wonder whether Mr. Flexner is not asking for a complete landslide.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading