Book review from DESIGN RESEARCH NEWS Volume 8 Number 8, Aug 2003 ISSN 1473-3862
Bonner, Thomas Neville. 2002. Iconoclast. Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Abraham Flexner had an unparalleled position as an expert on higher education. Even today, he remains a major influence on the world’s great universities, joining Kant and Humboldt of Germany, Turgot of France, or Newman of England in defining a vision of the great research university and shaping the institutional traditions that realize the vision.
Flexner also had a unique role in shaping research-based professional education at the graduate level. Flexner’s (1910) report on medical education was a landmark document that remains relevant for any field that educates practitioners in research-based professions. This role makes Flexner and his work particularly important to the design research community.
Thomas Neville Bonner’s Iconoclast places Flexner’s ideas and achievements in perspective, looking back from today’s world to a life centered on education and ideas. Abraham Flexner’s role in the development of today’s universities and professional schools makes this an intellectual history as well, written by a distinguished retired professor who dealt directly with these kinds of issues during a career in which he served as president of three universities.
Bonner (2002: ix) writes that Flexner raised questions about university-level professional education that remain relevant today. About college education, Flexner asked “Is it the place to get a broadly liberal education or does it represent an unnecessary postponement of serious study?” about the university, he asked “Is it a uniquely democratic opening of higher education or an undigested potpourri of academic and vocational units? How is professional study, especially for doctors, best structured to produce a scientifically trained and practical yet humane practitioner? What institutional arrangements stimulate the most rapid advances in research?”
Flexner’s answers to these questions are relevant to university-level design education and particularly significant for doctoral education in design.
The past five years have seen two conferences on doctoral education in design. The first took place in Columbus, Ohio (Buchanan, Doordan, Justice, and Margolin 1999), the second in La Clusaz, France (Durling and Friedman 2000) and a third is about to be held in Japan. There have been spirited on-line debates (DRS 2000, PhD-Design 2000-2003), working parties (Frayling. 1997; UKCGE 2001), special journal issues (Durling and Friedman 2002), reports (UCISOD 2002), and an increasing gray literature of unpublished studies.
Doctoral education in design brings multiple challenges to schools offering - or planning to offer - the doctorate. The vast majority of such programs are less than a decade old. Most are far younger.
The design field faces many problems in doctoral education. The largest of these is the need to build a robust structure for doctorates in a field that has no tradition of graduate research training.
This is compounded by a unique problem. Many schools that now offer a Ph.D. in design lack an experienced staff of senior faculty and supervisors. In many cases, faculty members responsible for doctoral education have not themselves earned a doctorate, and they have little or no personal experience with the kinds of graduate level research training for which they are assuming responsibility. The result is predictable, and it is most visible in the contrast between two kinds of doctoral programs, those at universities with a rich tradition of research education and universities new to the field.
Universities with a rich array of outstanding doctoral programs in multiple research fields and long experience in doctoral education are building staff carefully for doctoral education in design and moving into the field slowly.
In contrast, some new universities and independent art and design schools are expanding into doctoral programs without sufficient trained research staff to cover the growing number of research students.
At one extreme, top ranked research universities run small doctoral programs. These universities view doctoral education as a necessary expense that mature schools absorb within a larger research mission. These schools are heavily overstaffed in relation to the number of doctoral students they accept. While the staffing ratio will shift as programs grow, it necessarily begins far too high as these schools build experiences and a repertoire of programs for the future. These programs also use the full range of university resources, drawing on teachers, courses, and advisors from other fields and encouraging students to do so on an individual basis. Many schools also draw on visiting professors and advisory boards that are integrated into the work of the school and its programs. This is what some call the “go slow to go fast” model. Building solid programs will allow these schools to expand effectively in the years to come.
At the other end of the scale, we see a fair number of schools taking on a large number of candidates for poorly defined programs in which one or two supervisors handle a more-than-full load of research students. One teacher in a “practice-based” doctoral program boasts of supervising fourteen doctoral research candidates as though this were a mark of the program’s excellence (and profitability) rather than a declaration of poor standards and a demonstration that s/he has no comprehension of doctoral education and research training. Another school attempted to manage nearly fifty doctoral candidates with two supervisors on staff. The solution was to rent doctoral advisers from nearby universities, paying for five hours of thesis supervision per student per year for the planned three years of the degree program. Yet another school has signed up doctoral candidates who will live and study at other schools while technically being enrolled at (and partially supported by) a studio school that plans in this way to demonstrate that it can graduate successful doctoral candidates.
In some cases, the effort to hide the quality and workings of poor programs reaches astonishing levels. These practices are often rendered obscure by the differences in education law governing universities in differing nations or even within nations. This is visible in a growing number of situations and cases. One is particularly interesting.
Two common criteria for the Ph.D. are a contribution to the knowledge of a field and proof of the ability to conduct research. This is demonstrated by the doctoral dissertation. For centuries, publishing a dissertation has contributed to knowledge publicly while providing proof of research training. Accredited research universities in Canada and the United States file copies of doctoral dissertations at UMI in Ann Arbor. These copies form a permanent public record accessible through Dissertation Abstracts International and UMI dissertations are available on order in several formats. In Europe, most departments publish the dissertation in book form, placing copies in key national and international libraries.
The UK uses neither system. Instead, the candidate’s department is expected to archive a copy of the doctoral thesis in the university library. From there, it should be accessible to anyone who wishes to read it.
A recent attempt to locate examples of finished Ph.D. dissertations at several UK universities disclosed that some universities have no copies of their doctoral dissertations in design. One might well suspect that certain art and design schools do not wish the field to examine their Ph.D. awards too closely.
Doctoral education in design involves a field in transition. It also involves an explosion of doctoral awards relative to a baseline set only five years ago. Some degrees are awarded to outstanding candidates capable of independent research and well prepared to teach the next generation of research scholars in our field. Others are not. Since most of these awards are designated as a Ph.D., this is burdening the field with improperly credentialed doctors who are gaining research positions without the requisite background.
As problematic as this is, the history of education offers several good models for ways to move forward. Thomas Neville Bonner’s biography of Abraham Flexner tells the story of one distinguished educator who examined - and helped to rebuild - a field that was one in an equally chaotic state: medical education in the United States.
From this side of the new century, it is difficult to realize just how bad most American medical schools were at the dawn of the last century. While professional education in all fields must continually be evaluated in the light of changing times, new technology, shifting resources, and growing knowledge, medical education has done reasonably well in producing well trained doctors to meet the demand for medical care. This is certainly the case in North America, where medical schools are located within research universities and linked to teaching hospitals. It was not always so.
In the first decade of the 1900s, the United States and Canada had more than one hundred and fifty medical schools with over twenty-five thousand students. These were the survivors. They remained from nearly five hundred medical schools that had sprung up across North America since the early 1800s. Many schools had vanished as quickly as they had emerged. By 1910, the schools that remained accounted for well over half the world’s medical students.
Things were not all bad. “A dozen universities offered quality instruction, and another twenty stood out from the rest. Still others were making valiant efforts to improve. But changes had not reached a large number of the marginal schools. These schools were typically housed in a single building, often in poor repair. Classrooms were bare, except for chairs, a table, and perhaps a blackboard. Laboratories were tiny or non-existent. Equipment was sparse” (Bonner 2002: 70). Those who have been to visit a wide range of design schools may recognize the sound of these facilities. The comparison also extends to teaching staff, where the “schools’ faculties, chiefly local doctors, lectured at stated hours but were otherwise not to be found.”
The question was what to do to improve the situation. Henry Pritchett, head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, had the answer. In 1908, Pritchett, former president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hired Abraham Flexner to study medical education in the United States and Canada.
Flexner had already shown himself to be a rigorous and intelligent thinker on the subject of education. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1886, Flexner started an experimental school in Louisville, Kentucky. (This was four years before John Dewey launched his famous laboratory school in Chicago, and this brought him to the attention of Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot. In 1908, he wrote a controversial critique of American undergraduate education titled The American College.
Within a month of accepting his new position, Flexner was at work, and his surveys of - and reports on - medical education and other issues set a new standard for critical inquiry into professional education (Bonner 2002: 69-113). The survey also had practical results. Quack medical schools rapidly began to vanish, many as swiftly as they had arisen. Flexner’s report recommended that 120 of 155 medical schools should be closed, and most of the 120 schools he labeled as inadequate did, indeed, close. In one notable example, eleven of Chicago’s fourteen medical schools simply disappeared.
The report also led to positive improvements as universities strengthened professional education for medical practice. These improvements had worldwide influence as the new vigor of North American medical training also influenced the rest of the world. Flexner himself went on to survey medical education in Europe, and his views were so influential that one British medical school dean in the 1960s credited Flexner with the evolution of British medical education to its modern state.
In the years following the report, Flexner took on a central role in building medical schools, as we know them today. In a central position at the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board, he helped to raise - and spend - over 600 million dollars. While this sum was vastly more impressive in those days, half a billion dollars goes a long way in education circles even today.
In 1930, Flexner published his major book on university education in the United States, England, and Germany. This book once again had an impact that was unrivalled until 1936, when Robert Maynard Hutchins published The Higher Learning in America. Flexner’s (1994) Universities is still in print.
Later, Flexner established the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, and served as its first director. In this role, he brought Albert Einstein from Germany to the United States.
Born in 1866, Abraham Flexner died in 1959. He lived through a turbulent century that began just after the American Civil War and ended just as the Soviet Union and the United States entered outer space. Over the course of nearly a century, he lived a productive life of education, research, writing, and public service.
Flexner reshaped medical education from what it once was to what it remains today. He helped to shape a debate on undergraduate education that continues productively to this day. He was a leader for improvements in public education, and he was an early advocate of medical insurance for all. For all these reasons and more, this book is an important study in the evolution of professional education, higher learning, research education, and postdoctoral training. Given recent debates in design research, readers will find Bonner’s chapters on the 1910 Flexner report particularly useful for universities making their first steps into doctoral education in design.
-- Reviewed by Ken Friedman
Bonner, Thomas Neville. 2002. Iconoclast. Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Buchanan, Richard, Dennis Doordan, Lorraine Justice, and Victor Margolin, editors. 1999. Doctoral Education in Design. Proceedings of the Ohio Conference. October 8-11, 1998. Pittsburgh: The School of Design. Carnegie Mellon University.
DRS. 2000. Archives of the DRS Discussion List. JISCMAIL. URL: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/drs.html Accessed 2003 July 30.
Durling, David and Ken Friedman, editors. 2000. Doctoral Education in Design. Foundations for the Future. Proceedings of the La Clusaz Conference, July 8-12, 2000. Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom: Staffordshire University Press.
Durling, David and Ken Friedman, editors. 2002. Best Practices in Doctoral Education. Art, Design, and Communication in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 3. [Special journal issue].
Flexner, Abraham. 1910. Medical Education in the United States and Canada. Bulletin No. 4. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Flexner, Abraham. 1994 . Universities: American, English, German. With a new introduction by Clark Kerr. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
Frayling, Christopher, editor. 1997. Report of the working party on practice-based doctorates in creative and performing arts, UK Council for Graduate Education. Lichfield, Staffordshire, UK: United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education.
PhD-Design. 2000-2003. Archives of the PhD-Design Discussion list. JISCMAIL. URL: http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/phd-design.htmlAccessed 2003 July 30.
UCISOD. University of California Irvine School of Design Committee. 2002. Proposal for a School of Design at the University of California, Irvine. November 2002. Irvine: University of California, Irvine. URL: http://www.evc.uci.edu/growth/design/SoD-proposal.pdf
Accessed 2003 May 2.
UKCGE. United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education. 2001. Research Training in the Creative and Performing Arts & Design. Castle View, Dudley, UK [now at Lichfield, Staffordshire, UK]: United Kingdom Council for Graduate Education. URL: http://www.ukcge.ac.uk<http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/> Accessed 2001 December 15.
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