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A physician on curing us of irritation with the liberal arts.

July 5, 2012, 6:56 pm

Longtime reader, occasional commenter Chris Johnson gives me permission to quote from his email:

I do feel discouraged by this recent onslaught against the liberal arts. I appreciate and applaud the light you and your colleagues have shone on the recent travesty at the U of VA, as only one example of this trend. Academic historians need to bang that gong as loud as they can.

I graduated from Haverford College in 1974 with a double major in history and religion. I went on to medical school, and my dean there had been a Rhodes Scholar in one of the humanities. Fully half of my Haverford classmates majored in one or another of the humanities and then scattered across their business and professional careers. This is a wonderful thing, and was once regarded as a wonderful thing. But a similar craze in medical education for “practicality” has changed things such that many, many students now arrive having majored in something called “premedical studies,” which is nothing at all. I spent 4 years on a medical school admissions committee in the mid-90s and I saw it happening.

I’ve practiced pediatric critical care (intensive care) medicine for over 30 years. It is clear to me that the very best preparation I could have received for what I do every day — the essential, nontechnical stuff — was a liberal arts education. It gives you the to-do list, the reading and thinking list, for the rest of your life. It opens your eyes. And the cliche is correct: it does teach critical thinking. I think a key contributor to the dreadful spiral of our recent politics is that what little history people know is wrong.

As you guys say, history can save your ass. Maybe our collective asses, too.

(Although when we say “history can save your ass,” we are only quoting William Gibson.)

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