The separation between “sciences” and “humanities” in the intellectual life of all of Western society remains as entrenched today as it was in the mid-20th century (1). Although medical students benefit from the arts and the humanities, the evidence that directly links their integration with medical education learning outcomes is limited.
But something’s up. Over the past 27 months, health professionals and medical schools seem to think more broadly about how we train doctors to tackle public health catastrophes such as the current pandemic crisis. In Molly Worthen’s words, “A once-in-a-century crisis can help educate doctors”. The horrors of Covid-19 may repurpose medical humanities in educating physicians to effectively contribute to optimal health care outcomes for patients and communities.
According to NYU Langone Health’s Division of Medical Humanities, the humanities and arts provide insight into the human condition, suffering, personhood, and our responsibility to each other. They also offer a historical perspective on healthcare. Attention to literature and the arts helps to develop and nurture skills of observation, analysis, empathy, and self-reflection – skills that are essential for humane healthcare.
In response to the significant transformation in health care, physicians must be adaptive lifelong learners who are able to interweave their developing scientific knowledge with emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills, and an understanding of social context. In this regard, the arts and the humanities can play a unique and unrealized role in preparing and equipping physicians for 21st-century challenges.
Over the past decade, the majority of medical schools have incorporated the arts and humanities to varying degrees, and many have found novel and foundational ways to ensure the arts and humanities are valued and incorporated. Medical school admissions committees seek to admit well-rounded humanistic learners to the field of medicine. The Liaison Committee for Medical Education, for example, recommends that students preparing to study medicine should “acquire a broad undergraduate education that includes the study of humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.”
The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, however, contains no humanities component – the test questions described as covering “social sciences” primarily concern bedside manners and basic ethics. The exam’s priorities are symptoms of a more deeply ingrained assumption: the notion that the humanities may be an enjoyable forum for speculation and self-expression but have little to do with the discovery of medical knowledge or the nuts and bolts of care. This false dichotomy – the evidence-based hard sciences that produce perfectly objective knowledge versus the fuzzy humanities that gesture at feelings – has hampered a process of depolarization.
Yet, at a time when the pandemic has made disciplinary boundaries blurry again, the medical humanities may play a pivotal role in overcoming such a division. History, literature, and philosophy aren’t just good training grounds for an empathetic bedside manner. They shed light on the big questions of healing, suffering, and death. Together with social sciences, the humanities help doctors connect with patients (and themselves) as multidimensional beings.
Beyond medicine and medical education, depolarization is necessary to recover the human dimension in its complexity. Dichotomy is reflected and declined in the way we know the human experience, but it also limits the interconnectedness of human experiences, values, aspirations; the interconnectedness between the past, the present, and the future; and between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Depolarization can become a potential framework for seeing, understanding, and embracing human-to-human, human-to-nature, and human-to AI interconnectivity. In my perspective, the positive values of “interconnectedness” in various disciplines will become a key to the survival of humanities in the 21st century.
1. In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered his “Two Cultures” lecture, which postulated that the intellectual life of all of Western society was split into two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and this constituted a major barrier to solving the world’s problems.