In his recent article arguing for the importance of an education in the humanities, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof says that liberal arts are needed to guide the most practical, rational, logical discoveries of science and technology in the right direction. He writes that “the humanities enrich our souls” and interviews a labor economist at Harvard, Lawrence Katz, who says that the combination of soft skills and technical skills is important. “You need both, in my view, to maximize your potential,” says Katz.
This idea of the necessity of standing at the intersection of science and the humanities in order to reach the pinnacle of success has been echoed by other scholars, such as writer Walter Isaacson. Isaacson has chosen to write biographies of extraordinarily successful people, like Steve Jobs, who stood confidently at this intersection.
It would be interesting if more medical schools intentionally selected for students with strong humanities and non-science backgrounds. Some are already openly doing this, such as Mount Sinai and its HuMed program that pre-admits humanities concentrators in their sophomore year of college so that they can have more freedom to pursue diverse interests in the liberal arts without the pressure of worrying about how it would look on a medical school application.
In his article, Kristof writes that science, which faces tough bioethical questions, needs people in power who can weigh ethical questions with both data and humanism. He also writes that literature nurtures emotional intelligence in a way that science cannot. “Literature seems to offer lessons in human nature that help us decode the world around us and be better friends,” he says. This is invaluable in the medical field.
The argument that those who understand and excel at both science and art are the most successful has grown traction, but I wonder if it has really been adopted by the medical profession. Medicine is both an art and a science, but the scientific aspect is more easily tested and quantified. People routinely point out that we need doctors to become more empathetic and more skilled at the craft of medicine rather than just filled with knowledge. Maybe one issue is that the rigid steps to becoming a doctor do not always encourage people who are already constantly juggling the two identities of science and art to embark on a medical career. I’m interested to see how this will change in the future as people re-examine and reform pre-medical and medical education.