Spring/printemps 2008

The Assault on 'The Assault on Humanism': Classicists Respond to Abraham Flexner's 'A Modern School'

William Wraga
University of Georgia College of Education
Published June 3, 2008
  • Education Curriculum Reform,
  • Abraham Flexner,
  • Classicists,
  • Classical Investigation,
  • American Classical League
How to Cite
Wraga, William. 2008. “The Assault on ’The Assault on Humanism’: Classicists Respond to Abraham Flexner’s ’A Modern School’”. Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire De l’éducation 20 (1), 1-31. https://doi.org/10.32316/hse/rhe.v20i1.281.


Abraham Flexner’s controversial proposal in “A Modern School” (1916) to eliminate the classics from the secondary curriculum, prepared under the auspices of the General Education Board (GEB), precipitated a concerted campaign from classicists who kept the controversy before the public through editorials in the popular press, before educators through articles in professional journals, before social elites through a high profile conference at Princeton University and publication of Value of the Classics, and before the GEB through persistent correspondence. Capitalizing on the prestige that the classics enjoyed among social and political elites, classicists succeeded, through deft use of the existing and establishment of a new professional network, to persuade the GEB to subsidize a comprehensive study of classical pedagogy in US high schools. Through the resulting Classical Investigation, classicists co-opted progressive educators’ utility criterion and “scientific” method, exploited opportunities for favorable public promotion of the discipline, and procured generous funding from the GEB that supported not only the Classical Investigation, but also the fledgling American Classical League in the lean years ahead. After summarizing the development of and recommendations in Flexner’s “A Modern School,” this study reconstructs the response to Flexner’s proposals and evaluates the extent to which existing historical interpretations explain this overlooked struggle to defend the traditional academic curriculum.