Reassessing Social Work's First Critic

Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

Have we been wrong about Abraham Flexner?

Abraham Flexner was an early and influential critic of American higher education. His reports on medical schools transformed the training of doctors in the United States and abroad. But social workers remember him for his 1915 speech to the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, entitled "Is Social Work a Profession?" He said it wasn't—not yet.

Social work has never gotten over Flexner. He keeps coming back, popping up in the century-long debate over the aims and identity of the field. Some recent commentators have said he's a bad influence. "It's time for us to exorcise his ghost," David M. Austin declared in 1983 in the Social Service Review.

Now, in an article entitled "Reinterpreting Abraham Flexner's Speech, 'Is Social Work a Profession?' Its Meaning and Influence on the Field's Early Professional Development," Patricia McGrath Morris argues that Flexner has been given too much blame—and credit—and that some of his key ideas have been misunderstood. Social work leaders have "shadowboxed" with Flexner, she says, "in their own contemporary struggles to find answers to the inherent dilemmas within the field's professional identity."

In the early 20th century, social work, an occupation dominated by women, strove to raise its status, define its purpose, and establish educational standards. Flexner measured its progress against established professions like medicine, law, and engineering. To its credit, he said, social work was characterized by "professional association," "altruism," and "knowledge building." But in other ways it fell short. Social workers worked in so many different occupations— case workers, community organizers, charity workers, settlement house reformers—and used so many different approaches that it lacked a single coherent purpose, which also hampered the development of a specialized professional education. And it meant that unlike doctors, lawyers, and engineers, social workers were generalists without "decision-making authority."

However provocative, Flexner's speech exerted only modest influence in social work's development, Morris says. It did not, as some have supposed, produce an unhealthy preoccupation with specialization. Flexner's was one voice in an ongoing debate over how to "avoid the cultivation on the one hand of the narrow-minded technician and on the other of the unskillful dreamer," as Antoinette Cannon wrote in 1931. Nor did Flexner encourage social work to neglect social responsibility in favor of technical expertise. He had, after all, extolled social work's commitment to public service.

After World War II, as leaders strove to unify social work, they began to invoke Flexner more frequently. But Morris says they often summoned the wrong Flexner. When he declared that a profession must be "definite in purpose," he meant that it must serve a unique function in society, not confine itself to a single practical aim.

Morris, a senior advisor in the New Mexico Department of Health, said her aim was not to rehabilitate Flexner but to separate myth from reality. "He's at the genesis of our professional consciousness," she says. "As with Biblical stories, there are a lot of interpretations. I'm not sure we've gotten him right yet."


Morris, Patricia McGrath. 2008. "Reinterpreting Abraham Flexner's Speech, 'Is Social Work a Profession?' Its Meaning and Influence on the Field's Early Professional Development." Social Service Review 82 (1): 29-60.