This is why the humanities are important in medicine

As a medical student having completed my undergraduate major in the humanities, I often receive the question, “Why did you choose to do that?” The underlying thought behind asking why I would choose a major in the humanities while holding the intention to later attend medical school is that medicine is especially distinct from the humanities (and specifically African-American studies in my case). The sciences are just a whole other world when placed beside the humanities, and although broadening ones academic horizon could be beneficial as a general principle, the fields in and of themselves are entirely different.

Ideally, I like to state that medicine is the humanities in practice. Through the act of promoting healing, and well-being of the body, medicine offers a physical manifestation oriented toward sustaining human dignity and the ability to live a fulfilling life. Of course as is often the case, there is much more to consider beyond the ideal. Although there are plenty of reasons one can offer on why medicine and the humanities can go hand in hand, I want to present what I feel is the most important, yet notably overlooked reason.

The field of the humanities, as the word suggests and as I’ve incorporated through my studies, is very much about the human. It seeks to answer the question, “What is the human?” There is much overlap between the humanities and medicine when trying to consider the ontological position of the human in the physical and physiologic sense. Yet what happens when we consider this question not only biologically but also philosophically, socially, and politically, through the lens of historic past, present, and future. An extension of this question is to consider why a group would be categorized as non-human and consequently open to a lack of human rights and privileges.

Through my studies, a common method used to define and understand something has been to juxtapose a group with something outside of that group. That is to say, we may understand what we consider “human” to be by defining and contrasting what we consider to be “not human.” Where I would like to narrow the focus to, and where copious amounts of work have been done both biologically and philosophically is categorizing humans and non-humans or lesser humans based on perceived differences. Ultimately this method seeks to extract what we consider human based on some deviant behavior or characteristics that mark the non-human, most typically done through the construct of race.

This notion of sub-species within humans is simple to understand when considering the past. Consider as an example the scientific endeavors by philosopher Emmanuel Kant on delineating human species through race found within his famous 1777 essay titled, “Of the Different Human Races.” Or consider still the numerous instances of scientific racism seeking to prove this human difference and subsequent superiority/inferiority. Although not proven in any objective sense, works like this from some of the most prominent scientists of the era served to forward the assumption of inherent human difference and justified institutional discrimination. Specifically for this conversation it also served to justify behavior that took rights away from those not considered to fit the constructed model of what was considered the normal human.

It is likely more difficult to think of contemporary impacts of human difference and a categorization of the human and lesser-human. Although you would be challenged to find scientists and scholars re-invoking the sub-species narrative, it is quite easy to find individuals within society both scholarly and otherwise who accept inherent racial human difference as fact. Despite the presence of huge disparities by race when considering health outcomes, educational outcomes, income and wealth, etc., and of course access and autonomy over the means to improve such conditions, these outcomes are frequently thought to be the result of a deficiency on the part of the individuals or cultural background. We tend to view these as not as the product of a society with differential treatment given to some humans and neglect towards other humans, but instead as a natural end point based on an understanding that some are not fully eligible to receive the benefits of being wholly human in society due to some inherent deficiency.

When I think of the #blacklivesmatter movement, for example, I see a challenge to who we as a society consider human and deserving of an agreed upon list of human rights including the right to life. While some in society are to be protected, others are open to gratuitous police violence because something about them is falsely said to be inherently criminal or violent. While we no longer concede that some are humans while others are sub-species of human, we do consent that some members of society are to be afforded the benefits and fruits of human rights and a civil society, while others may be systematically declined that benefit based on a constructed model of human difference.

The humanities have taught me that there is room as a future physician to contend with the issue introduced above. As historically, socially, and politically explored through a diverse curriculum I have learned that not everyone is granted their due humanity in the society constructed around us. Through my profession, however, perhaps I may alleviate the situation or at the least have a better understanding of it in my work. One of the most repeated phrases I have heard from my professors this first week of medical school is that in order to understand pathology and a disruption from a normal standard within the body, we must first understand what normal healthy physiology looks and acts like. Following a parallel train of thought, the humanities offer us as students and individuals the means to understand what social pathology looks, feels, and acts like, so that we may work to arrive at a healthy normal social life for humans as a whole.

Nasir Malim is a medical student.

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