Bioethics Blogs

Thoughts on Flexner and Professionalism, 1915 and 2015

Education reformer Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) is regarded by many as the father of Modern America’s medical education curriculum. He authored the Flexner Report for the Carnegie Foundation after making site visits to all the country’s medical and osteopathic medical schools of the day. He harshly criticized the vast majority of the schools he visited. His insightful recommendations were adopted for the most part within just a few years and his Report continues to influence medical education today.

In 1915, Flexner addressed the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. The title of his speech was “Is Social Work a Profession?” He answered that it was not. Flexner compared social workers of the day against the “benchmark” professionals of medicine, law, and preaching, and found that those who provided social work services had not yet achieved true professional status. He saw the social worker of the day as a “narrow minded technician.” In deference to social workers, Flexner also viewed nurses and pharmacists the same way.

Flexner identified six characteristics of a profession and its professionals: (1) “professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility”; (2) “they derive their raw material from science and learning; (3) “this material they work up to a practical and definite end”; (4) “they possess an educationally communicable technique” (their own language); (5) “they tend to self-organization”; and (6) they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation.” He could not have been more complementary of a trained social worker’s altruism, dedication, and “professional spirit,” but he did not think that social workers’ groundwork was scientifically developed nor their contributions unique.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.