Friday, July 30, 2010
The Unbearable Lightness of College
A poster on the doctor's blog Sermo.com suggested that four years of undergraduate school, which he caricatured as hippies reading Kierkegaard and, in generally derisory tones, as a useless indulgence before medical school. I responded that undergraduate education need not be 'useless' (his word). Some need maturation after high school (raises hand), don't settle on medicine until later, maybe even junior year (raises hand), and find liberal education a source of strength, personal growth, intellectual rigor, and relevant to human/art/life and the practice of medicine--art as well as science--rather than ivory tower escape from reality. Again, I raise my hand, as a math/physics/philosophy/premed undergraduate who, too, read widely outside courses, talked with non-science/premed friends about all sorts of things I'd not found by myself, all through college. Including, as it happens, Kierkegaard, whom, in particular, I found useful in life as well as deeply moving, and hardly, seems to me, is the stuff of hippie self-indulgence. (Nor do I think 'hippie self-indulgence' a redundancy.) If you don't mess around, explore and broaden your intellectual base, too, before medical school, you won't have time to do so for years, and will from high school on be in school amongst mostly premed/med students--that can limit and isolate, as well as speed you along. At current tuitions, two years in college not strictly necessary to a career are somewhat of a luxury. But were my kids thinking of medical school, I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it, and I'd strongly encourage them to do so. Too, a lot of kids out of HS haven't chosen medicine out of maturity, or knowledge of other options, but as sort of the next stop on the bus, and, given the vicissitudes and demands of medical practice, I'd want them to consider that choice for a bit longer, and in a wider context than is available to a 17-18 yo high school graduate. If you're sure, sure, sure, maybe it's OK to embark on a six-year program, and, certainly, you can get as much medicine as you need in that time. But not my preference, based on my experiences and those of the docs I've met. As for my course, I don't regret it for a minute. All that non-medical stuff still fascinates me, has enriched my life for 45 years or so, and binds me to a world outside medicine, the world patients and most of my fellow citizens inhabit. I even still seek to expand its scope; it'll be a sad day when I feel I've nothing else to learn. Granted that it isn't strictly necessary for a medical career, that not all make good use of it, and that a six-year doc can still read. But I reject a summary dismissal of liberal education as, mostly, self-indulgent omphaloskepsis which delays and diverts from life and purpose far more than adds to it.