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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  • ninguem

    This is the patter I have given to premeds for years.

    It’s been quite a few years since I looked up the statistics, but if I remember correctly, the acceptance rate of premeds to medical school is fairly constant across majors.

    You get more biochemistry majors accepted to medical school, only because more of them major in biochemistry.But as a percentage of applicants, a Latin major has as good of an acceptance rate to medical school as a biochemistry major.

    That was true when I was applying to medical school in the 1970′s, and I remember seeing the same numbers in the 1990′s I assume it’s still true today, correct me if I’m mistaken.

    That assumes, of course, that the Latin major does as well on organic chemistry as the biochemistry major.

    …..not picking on Latin or biochemistry, just using as examples…….

    So, assuming you get into medical school, you graduate, you do your postgraduate training, and you are now living the rest of your life.

    Now what?

    What do you do for fun?

    And hey, maybe perusing the biochemistry journals is what you like to do.

    But if it’s learning about ancient Rome, or playing in a jazz band, maybe you should have studied Latin or music.

    In college, if you are shooting for medical school, study what you like. Liberal Arts courses do not have to be fluff, they can be as academically rigorous as any science.

    My medical school, one student spoke fluent Polish, and had studied in Poland. One faculty member, originally from Poland, was one of the many faculty doing the interviews. He conducted the rest of his interview in Polish, and conversation tended to revolve around the best restaurants in Warsaw at the time. That same Polish doc fairly well grilled me on my interview that same day. I felt like I was applying to law school or the debating club.

    Polish-speaking student sailed right in.

    You never know what’s going to help you in the future.

    The little time I was on such committees, I have to admit, it was nice to have a break from the same old boring biology/chemistry/biochemistry premeds to interview.

    • T H

      In MY day, Biochemistry was HARD! We had to MAKE our own reagents! We had to GRIND the meat to start our separations!
      UP HILL! In the SNOW!

      And what got me into medical school was that one of the interviewers noticed that I had a sci-fi short story published that I started writing during my freshman english composition class and finished when I took a creative writing class as a junior – mainly to get away from Bioch. gunners for a couple hours a week.

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    “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.”

    That doesn’t sound like critical thinking, it sounds like regurgitated Ezekiel Emanuel.

    • rbthe4th2

      You forgot working with the patient, client or whatever, as there are those of us who are interested in working with you still. We’d like to not be considered the deep pockets to pay for mistakes though. It works both ways for a relationship.

    • saurabh jha

      You are correct that liberal arts doesn’t teach about philosophy of science (v. important) or unintended consequences. But that really comes from the libertarian school of thinking which is not taught in conventional sciences or even economics.

  • Thomas D Guastavino

    I’m curious. Which “liberal arts” courses would you recommend? If any courses should be added it should be business.

    • James O’Brien, M.D.

      You’re right. Given the realty of medical economics today, I think watching 4 hours of Shark Tank might benefit physicians more than 4 years of liberal arts.

    • T H

      Business, accounting, basic law/political policy. And real foreign language classes. Or sign language.