Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Value of the Humanities

In an article today in the Wall Street Journal – “Humanities Fall from Favor”, journalists Levitz and Belkin note how colleges and universities are losing humanities majors. The percent of graduates who have majored in history, philosophy, English, etc. has dropped to 7% nationwide in 2010 from 14% in 1966. At Harvard the drop has been from 36% to 20%.

A great deal of the reason for this drop is attributed to the practical orientation to getting jobs post-graduation. One Harvard student says, “People say you should do what you love…I don’t want to be doing what I love and be homeless.”

Here’s a thought: make a living, then do what you love. Universities should consider gearing up for humanities majors for people who have their careers and now want to return to college to take all of those courses they later wish they had taken, and major in those areas they wish they had studied in their youth.

That’s what I did. I was in a hurry to become a doctor. From the age of 10 I wanted to be one. My parents were always supportive and encouraging. Whenever I talked about wanting to perhaps major in music (I played trumpet) or philosophy (which I discovered in high school) I was discouraged: “But how will that help you become a doctor?” I had a lot of extracurricular activities related to clinical and research medicine. I thought I knew what I wanted to do.

But once I got into residency in family medicine I quickly recognized that I really was more interested in health economics, politics, administration, and ethics. I liked project work more than piece-meal work, which clinical medicine mostly entails. The manner of work was as important in my job satisfaction as the intellectual and emotional content of the work. Hence I moved into population health management (then called public health and medical care administration). This let me combine my interests in business and health management with my content intellectual interest in medicine.

At some point, perhaps around the mid-90s, when I ended up as a successful venture capitalist and had essentially fully funded my retirement economic (modest) needs, I was able to turn toward one of those loves: medical and business ethics. I went back to school to enhance my philosophy background, receiving a unique MA in philosophy from Wesleyan University. I was older than nearly every one of my professors, had worldly experiences they couldn’t deny when I asked practical questions of the academic studies, and was able to help fellow students with many of their science-related and business questions in informal discussions. It was a fulfilling experience culminating in my appointment at Wesleyan as an adjunct visiting professor of biology and philosophy, teaching epidemiology and bioethics. I loved working with those students – bright, inquisitive, social justice-oriented. When I moved full-time to Santa Fe I didn’t realize how much I’d miss that teaching.

When I tell others about this I often receive the response, “Boy, I wish I could do that.” And my guess is more would go back to get that elusive education if the system were set up for those students. There is talk about educating the “mature” student. And some schools may have begun classes to do so.

Now the down sides: (1) When you learn a discipline at an early age your mind is more absorbent. There’s no doubt it took me longer to absorb my readings in philosophy at age 50 than age 18. I’d diligently read the assignments, and often even more than assigned, and then get to class and forget the topic, let alone the specifics of the reading. Once reminded by the professor of the topic it would come back to me quickly and I could redact the philosophical arguments or history pretty well.

(2) Having worked in the medical industrial complex for almost 40 years it is part of my DNA. I know the ins and outs, have a full intuitive feel for what will work and what won’t, and can call on those years of experience to analyze new situations. I don’t have that same confident feel in philosophy. I write papers and provide arguments and (what I think are) new ideas, but am never quite sure I am fully briefed on the literature, or my arguments may have holes that need filling in. Peer reviewers will often point out those holes – but not always. [The peer reviewer system is unreliable at best – it is as dependent on the biases and attention of the reviewers as it may be on their overall capabilities. More on this another time.]

(3) There may be a collegial civility of professors for more mature audiences that sugarcoats what would otherwise be more appropriate criticism. None of us wants to be criticized unfairly, but we can’t advance as well if we are not adequately criticized as we go along in our learning process.

Meanwhile, I’m blessed (and grateful to Wesleyan, the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, and my venture capital success) to be able to have the luxury of concentrating on ethical issues in medicine at this time in my life. My most recent paper should be out in the next couple of months on the “hard questions” of causation and prevention, to be published in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy.

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