Why premedical students need the liberal arts

In his commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, international affairs journalist and author Fareed Zakaria defended the value of a liberal arts education.  “At its essence,” explained Zakaria, “a liberal education is an education to free the mind from dogma, from controls, from constraints.  It is an exercise in freedom.”  His speech, I imagine, was well received and much appreciated by the over 400 graduates earning liberal arts degrees that day in the midst of declining funding, popularity, and respect for their chosen field.

Premedical students, presumably destined for the prestige and pay scale of a medical career, might imagine themselves to be outside — or maybe even above — the scope of Zakaria’s message.  If you are among them, you are seriously mistaken, potentially to the detriment of both your higher education in general and your professional training as a future physician.  Rather than strategically choosing classes on the basis of how easily you can fulfill breadth requirements while completing the premedical curriculum, I would urge you to pay closer attention to your courses in the liberal arts, and here are the three most important reasons why:

1. The liberal arts teach you the power of words and language, which are the basis for communication and the relationship between doctor and patient. Despite incredible advances in technology, modern medicine remains as much about communication as about any of the biomedical sciences.  In fact, with the leading causes of premature mortality being driven by behavioral and societal factors, better communication — whether in counseling individual patients or informing the larger public — may be the most important tool in addressing our greatest public health challenges today.  Conveying the importance of exercise, vaccination, or any other preventive action to another person, however, requires more than presenting cliché public health messages or statistics.  It also requires an understanding of the immense power of words and language to shape ideas and change people, hallmarks of a liberal arts education.  Moreover, such an understanding of language opens a window into the unique human experiences behind a person’s words.  It allows you to learn empathy and make a genuine connection with the person in your care.

2. The liberal arts train you to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners, cornerstones of the medical profession. While the scientific method provides a foundation for much of medical practice, empirical and quantitative methods have limits to the questions they can answer.  When it comes to the grayer areas of uncertainty, including many clinical decisions and ethical judgments faced by physicians every day, the critical thinking and analytic skills emphasized by a liberal arts education become essential.  They allow a physician to consider various perspectives, seek evidence, and construct an argument for specific action.  There can be no skill more vital to a doctor than this ability to take reasoned action in the face of uncertainty.  Furthermore, the open mind and inquiring attitude that this skill imparts lends itself to continued learning and adaptation, even as the available evidence and standard practices change with each passing year.

3. The liberal arts prepare you to tackle the more complex questions facing physicians, including what role they should play in society, politics, and promotion of social justice. Contrary to what the progressive commercialization of medicine would have us believe, medicine continues to be “a calling, not a business,” in the words of William Osler.  Physicians continue to bear a social obligation of service and integrity toward the patients and communities with whom they work.  In many ways, the liberal arts offer to elevate our level of discourse above the ever-changing market forces and administrative policies in medicine and to thereby ensure that these principles are never unwittingly compromised under external pressure.  Additionally, it provides a framework for beginning to address the larger social and political issues involved in promoting greater justice in the distribution of healthcare resources.  These represent priorities that deserve our greatest attention as future doctors and that require us to “free the mind from dogma, from controls, from constraints” and exercise the freedom of thought afforded to us by the liberal arts.

Armaan Rowther is a medical student who blogs at Medical Madrasa.

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