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Opinion |  Medical school needs a dose of humanities


This approach has long roots. Some of the best chroniclers of the human condition in our civilization have been doctor-storytellers who decided to start telling stories themselves: Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, Oliver Sacks – and today, writers. talented like Atul Gawande, Daniela Lamas (a Times Opinion Contributor), Siddhartha Mukherjee and Vincent Lam. It has been a huge loss to the humanities, and to readers in general, that relatively few physicians see themselves as storytellers. But maybe that’s starting to change.

It should be noted that America’s most famous doctor of the Covid era is a committed humanist. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, fell in love with the humanities in high school and majored in classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. When he reflected on life after college, “there was this tension: would it be the humanities and the classics, or would it be science?” he told the New Yorker last year. “And analyzing that, it seemed to me that being a doctor was the perfect blend of those two aspirations.

As these humanistic physicians well know, history, literature, and philosophy are not just good training grounds for an empathetic bedside manner. They shed light on the big questions of healing and suffering. But it’s hard to argue that humanists have anything meaningful to say on big questions when many of us fall prey to increasingly narrow research interests and not devote the time to research. general exploration of the world.

CP Snow, an English novelist and chemist, wrote in his flagship 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures” that humanist intellectuals he knew rejected scientists “as ignorant specialists” – but most of them could not define. the second law of thermodynamics. “Their own ignorance and their own specialization are just as surprising,” he wrote. The cultural authority of the hard sciences has multiplied since the days of Dr. Snow – and humanists pay an even higher price for their own parochialism.

What about the charge – partly justified, I admit, by the small number of radical postmodernists in our ranks – that academic humanists downplay “empiricism and evidence,” as it puts it? The Lancet? It is more accurate to say that humanists take evidence so seriously that they emphasize the views of multiple points of view and the recognition of one’s own limited perspective.

This epistemological warning is also of value to health professionals. Like all experts, they are captive to the current fallible paradigm of their discipline and the hidden assumptions. Such paradigms are crucial for scientific work, but at the same time, a paradigm can “isolate the community from those socially important problems which are not reducible to puzzle form because they cannot be stated in terms of tools. conceptual and instrumental of the supply paradigm ”, wrote Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science in“ The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ”.

Such an attitude is not well suited to the strenuous lectures preparing students for board exams. “What we learn in basic science classes is that it’s objective, it’s 100% correct, that’s the only way to see it,” said Dr. Kessler, a medical student at the ‘University of Washington. “The humanities couldn’t be further from this. There are many ways to interpret people’s cultural education and interpret their stories, and seeing them from multiple perspectives is important in providing equitable care for everyone.



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