I once was an English major. From a BA in English and American Studies I went (after a brief sojourn in advertising copywriting) into the big house, the MD factory. And I never regretted my undergraduate choice; never for a moment thought my English degree was either a hinderance or a disadvantage in the world of science.
(At least not after the first six weeks, which was biochemistry. But even then, while my chemistry colleagues sat bored in what was for them a review, I was stimulated by the thought that for the first time in my scientific studies, I was learning something theoretical that I would use in practice.)
I could write a book (and maybe I should) about the value of a literary education in the life of a physician. But for today, here is the Cliffnotes version (and no, in college I NEVER resorted to Cliffnotes):
- Literature teaches empathy. Empathy is a good thing in healthcare. And a scarce commodity.
- Years of reading about the lives of people in different times and with different values gives you a deeper insight into people from other walks of life. And if you are an ethical doctor, you must deal with every kind of person you can possibly imagine.
- It never hurts that your medical notes are clearly written and grammatically correct.
- Every patient has a story to tell. A doc who understands this listens well and pulls the elements of the story together into a coherent whole, something we fiction-heads call a theme but doctors mistakenly call a diagnosis.
- Shakespeare was the greatest psychiatrist in world history. If you can take apart Hamlet you can understand any patient. (A similar argument could be made for Captain Ahab. Or Isabel Archer. Oh, how I loved Isabel Archer.)
- You can make ethical mistakes in real life, or you can read novels about people who have ruined themselves instead and learn not to do what they did (recommendation: Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara). Personally I find learning from others' stupidity the better of the two options. But I seem to stand in the minority here. (And for those who wonder if the study of history serves that purpose, too, I would say: Not entirely. History, honestly taught, is too muddy for clear ethical lessons. Literature, which has eyes to see inside individual minds, does that better.)
- Medical schools don't give a crap what you major in, so why not major in something that is fun? I swear it is true. No one ever, ever asked me about my major when I interviewed at medical schools. Nobody cared. I even think they were relieved to not have to interview biology major number 1369.
- When you finish a long, hard day up to your neck in human suffering, you can read Ulysses instead of the New England Journal of Medicine. This, my friends, is the greatest joy of all, the one for which I am daily thankful.
(One day, maybe I will write a book entitled, How James Joyce Made Me a Better Doctor. Anyone want to pre-order?)
Photo of Henry James from 1910 from Wikipedia.