Abraham Flexner’s thoughts on education, curiosity, the serendipitous nature of discovery

Photo via The World’s Work, 1910

The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place – yet poets and artists and scientists have ignored the factors that would, if attended to, paralyze them. From a practical point of view, intellectual and spiritual life is, on the surface, a useless form of activity, in which men indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise obtainable. In this paper I shall concern myself with the question of the extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed of, utility is derived.

– Abraham Flexner

Abraham Flexner started his career as a teacher of classic literature at Louisville Male High School. Just four years into his teaching career, he opened his own school in response to many of the things that he witnessed were demotivating about the traditional educational system. This new school rejected grades and report cards, avoided formal exams, and instead opted for learner-lead curriculums with hands-on care and discussion with the instructor. 

He was a vocal critic of the American College system and its tendency to prioritize predictable results over creativity. His book, “The American College” details his thoughts about the dangers of taking a primarily lecture-focused approach to education. Lecture is a passive form of learning; it passively feeds students information without context. Many of his criticisms from the 1930s are the same criticisms that the higher education system still receive today, because the structure of education has remained largely unchanged in the last 80 years.

He was a strong believer in the power of curiosity and the serendipitous nature of discovery. His quote below reveals his belief that all great discoveries were driven by curiosity and accident, more than a desire to “discover” something useful:

… throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity…Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

Looking at discovery though this lens it’s easy to see how so many of the innovations we rely on today could have been missed. It makes me wonder how many other discoveries are still locked inside the mind of someone who has been conditioned to suppress their natural curiosity.

Penicillin. Accident! Resulted when Alexander Fleming made an observation that Staph bacteria didn’t grow around a spot of mold in some dirty old petri dish samples. He wanted to know why!

Smallpox vaccine. A chance observation! Resulted when Edward Jenner made an observation that his milkmaids who had caught cowpox never caught smallpox in the future. He was curious to figure out why!

The list goes on, infinitely. Curiosity flourishes out in the real world, where hands get dirty and there are observations to make. It rarely happens when someone sits down and tries to create a great innovation in front of a blank piece of paper.