Friday, July 30, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of College

A poster on the doctor's blog Sermo.com suggested that four years of undergraduate school, which he caricatured as hippies reading Kierkegaard and, in generally derisory tones, as a useless indulgence before medical school. I responded that undergraduate education need not be 'useless' (his word). Some need maturation after high school (raises hand), don't settle on medicine until later, maybe even junior year (raises hand), and find liberal education a source of strength, personal growth, intellectual rigor, and relevant to human/art/life and the practice of medicine--art as well as science--rather than ivory tower escape from reality. Again, I raise my hand, as a math/physics/philosophy/premed undergraduate who, too, read widely outside courses, talked with non-science/premed friends about all sorts of things I'd not found by myself, all through college. Including, as it happens, Kierkegaard, whom, in particular, I found useful in life as well as deeply moving, and hardly, seems to me, is the stuff of hippie self-indulgence. (Nor do I think 'hippie self-indulgence' a redundancy.) If you don't mess around, explore and broaden your intellectual base, too, before medical school, you won't have time to do so for years, and will from high school on be in school amongst mostly premed/med students--that can limit and isolate, as well as speed you along. At current tuitions, two years in college not strictly necessary to a career are somewhat of a luxury. But were my kids thinking of medical school, I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it, and I'd strongly encourage them to do so. Too, a lot of kids out of HS haven't chosen medicine out of maturity, or knowledge of other options, but as sort of the next stop on the bus, and, given the vicissitudes and demands of medical practice, I'd want them to consider that choice for a bit longer, and in a wider context than is available to a 17-18 yo high school graduate. If you're sure, sure, sure, maybe it's OK to embark on a six-year program, and, certainly, you can get as much medicine as you need in that time. But not my preference, based on my experiences and those of the docs I've met. As for my course, I don't regret it for a minute. All that non-medical stuff still fascinates me, has enriched my life for 45 years or so, and binds me to a world outside medicine, the world patients and most of my fellow citizens inhabit. I even still seek to expand its scope; it'll be a sad day when I feel I've nothing else to learn. Granted that it isn't strictly necessary for a medical career, that not all make good use of it, and that a six-year doc can still read. But I reject a summary dismissal of liberal education as, mostly, self-indulgent omphaloskepsis which delays and diverts from life and purpose far more than adds to it.

10 comments:

BlakNo1 said...

When a person talks of 'hippies' in a derogatory manner, I usually feel free to ignore everything else that person says.

And, not meant as a slam on young people at all, but how can you be that certain what you want to do with all that time you(hopefully) have left if you don't explore your options and see what the world has to offer?

ProfWombat said...

Sure. Though, as I'd guess you'd agree, you wouldn't restrict your second paragraph's observation to the young...

BlakNo1 said...

Oh, for sure. I'm 43 and I didn't have a true career path until 5 years ago.

P. Drāno said...

Franky, it's strange to hear an adult delivering himself of such a prêt-à-porter opinion about the value of an education unrestricted by career goals. Oh well.
I will note that Chekhov was by all accounts a very capable physician but, long before that, had familiarized himself with the art for which we chiefly remember him.

ProfWombat said...

John Keats, Walker Percy, John Dos Passos, other docs who could write.

P.Dr: agreed; awfully glib, dismissive and careless of language, seems to me. I talked to a few other people about this. Inside medicine, most had memories of courses required for medical school but which proved to be unnecessary once you got there. Outside, the universal reaction was: 'Just what the world needs--more careerist docs who never read anything.' To which I can only add: just what the world needs, more careerist anythings, rigorously suppressing their common humanity with anyone but their colleagues. Phooey.

Ruth said...

how odd, I had posted a comment, and have it disappeared. having a problem?

Ruth said...

oh, I see now.

ProfWombat said...

Had a brain fart above: Dos Passos wasn't a doc; I was thinking, somehow, of William Carlos Williams, actively practicing medicine while writing. Sorry...

derbes said...

I saw (as you surely did) an article in the NYT about Mt. Sinai soliciting med school apps from kids who hadn't done the premed courses. The evidence is that these kids do as well as the traditionally trained. The great Lewis Thomas used to argue for premeds to major in history or English or philosophy, anything but bio or chem. I think doctors have to be excellent bio engineers (when the body goes wrong, you need an engineer to diagnose and repair the problem), but they also have to be excellent people, with a deep knowledge of how other people think and feel. Medicine delivered by wise doctors must always be able to cross the blood-soul barrier.

ProfWombat said...

David: yup. That Times article occasioned the thread on the docs' blog I was responding to. Been arguing with those who think the liberal arts mere fluff and BS, a luxury rather than a necessity and easily dispensed with. And, I might add, doing so from a math/physics type's background.

If liberal arts are fluff, an opportunity more from self-indulgence rather than critical reading and thinking, it isn't the liberal arts' fault. And if docs need external constraints and demands to develop critical thinking, maybe we're choosing the wrong folk to be docs.

And Thomas (a favorite of mine, too) is absolutely right. They'll not have a chance to encounter the humanities in that depth, commitment and exposure to wise folk for maybe 5-10 years, if even them, once they hit med school. Not to their good, that. I love the notion of a blood-soul barrier; it should be bridged rather than fortified.