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« Academic Freedom: A Manifesto (Dean) | Main | When Knopf Said No »

September 12, 2007


Alas, the stark instrumentalism permeating this excerpt doesn't suggest the future of medicine will improve much. Ignoring the colloquial grammar, I am disheartened by this comment by the student: Historians are supposed to integrate information with the big picture, which will hopefully be useful as a physician. He's simply shifting the pedagogical burden of instilling skills from a "hard" discipline to a "soft" one. This has nothing to do with a well rounded education. Similarly, this--The schools are looking for a kind of compassion and potential doctoring ability. This makes many social-science and humanities students particularly well qualified.--leads me to expect that applicants to medical schools will now seek ways to express their "compassion" in their applications and pre-med careers. Most, in other words, will have learned nothing about compassion. They will merely learn how to deploy evidences of it to depict it in their own lives.

An interesting example for this: My aunt, who was until retiring, a physician and surgeon of great repute, explained an operation gone wrong using a sewing analogy (She is an avid seamstress in her spare time) She commented that the physician doing the botched procedure, while being extremely competent in the theoretical realm, having won prestigious awards, had no knowledge of the world at large beyond her biology texts.
You never know where broader skills acquired in the real world come handy, even in a specialized field such as medicine.

Are you afraid that now entering med school students will be writing those fake "genuine" applications describing their ever widening compassionate span? Well, I am afraid they already do. Most med school applications blather about curing cancer (when I saw my mother/father/grandma/uncle/ best friend suffer the ravages of cancer etc.) or alleviating the sufferings of the third world! No one mentions money, prestige and lavish junkets funded by pharmaceutical companies (or in the case of Asian students, that their parents made them).

My approval of the "well rounded" approach is because indeed I believe that exposure to some non-science disciplines before entering an exacting technical profession is better training than the "gerbil in a cage" type of approach that current pre-med courses offer. It softens the edges of the human mind. It makes for "happier" students without necessarily ensuring more competent ones. MCAT scores and the brutal curriculum of the med school act as effective screening for the latter quality.

This article reminded me of my son who started college enrolled in the honors program in natural sciences and a major in chemistry. A month and a half into his first semester, he called home to say that the "all science" curriculum was mind numbingly boring and stifling. I still remember what he said to me in exasperation : "I will forget to write if I just do physics, chemistry and math." I asked him to add some humanities courses. He decided to go one step further and added a second major in Plan II ( an integrated liberal arts major offered at UT) to his already challenging schedule. There is no doubt in my mind (and his) that his excellence in chemistry / physics / math was aided substantially by the English, philosophy, history and music classes he ended up taking.

Point well taken, Ruchira. I wasn't being cynical enough in my lament. Of course students are already calculative and instrumental. When I wrote the comment, I had in mind the AP article (now unavailable) appearing in the NYT to which I linked in an earlier post. The story mentioned a high school teacher who advised students to make deliberate mistakes in their applications to college, essentially to feign "authenticity." I'm detecting a trend in the institutionalization of instrumentalism. But it's a mistake to imagine that these strategies aren't already widespread.

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