I'm Put on the Spot—and Forced to Defend the Humanities in a Room Full of Medical Students
I didn't ask for this gig—so why did I ever agree to it?
I didn’t ask for this gig—but now I’m stuck in the middle of it.
Here’s the background: I’m asked to give a talk on the humanities to students at a medical school.
Let me emphasize that this wasn’t my idea. But many of you are freelancers, and already know the drill. We don’t always get to choose our gigs. And sometimes you agree to an unusual request, hoping for the best. If things work out, you’ve expanded your own horizons by taking on a challenging job.
And if not? Well there’s always another gig down the road.
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So I agreed to give this talk, but with trepidation. When you’re involved in arts or culture and stand up in front of an audience of science or tech people, they expect you to justify the humanities.
Why should we waste time with you? They don’t actually say that, but it’s hanging thick in the air like a bad odor.
A ‘casual talk’ about the humanities turns into a plea to the jury for acquittal. There’s simply more skepticism about the humanities now than ever before, and you can’t avoid that cynical attitude, especially when talking to a whole room of future doctors.
Frankly, I don’t like defending the humanities. Don’t get me wrong—studying the humanities was life-changing for me. I grew up in a neighborhood where nobody’s parents, including my own, had gone to college. So when I got the chance, I found it liberating to study Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Mozart, Sappho, Goethe, and all those other dead people from across the big pond.
But these individuals, so important to my development, aren’t as beloved nowadays. I don’t know how anyone can grapple with ideas or the world at a deep level without paying close attention to the leading lights of the past, but I don’t believe anyone should be forced to read Shakespeare, for example. Let those who are curious and willing, go down that path. If that’s just a tiny number of people, so be it. And if others think they have found a better way to wisdom that doesn’t involve learning from the past, I wish them well and send them off to their favorite TikTok influencers.
But the students at the medical school who had invited me shared my love of the humanities. They very much wanted me to defend it as an essential part of an education. They told me that when they hired me for the gig. And even if I would never force ‘culture’ on anyone—that very practice violates the spirit of Western culture, in my view—I do feel it’s completely fair to nurture a young person’s curiosity and potential enthusiasm for the humanities as something they might pursue on their own.
So here’s what I said.
Ted’s Unusual and Seat-of-the-Pants Defense of the Humanities
Thank you for inviting me here.
I know you expect me to talk about the humanities, and how it can make you better doctors. But I need to start with some bad news.
Prepare yourself, because it’s unpleasant.
Here it is. At some point in your career, you will almost certainly get asked to do something unethical, perhaps even illegal.
But the news gets worse. The person who asks you do something unethical is probably going to be your boss—or some other authority figure who has power over you.
And now I have the worst news of them all: When you are put in this ugly situation, with your boss asking you to do something wrong, you will probably only get 5-10 seconds to decide how to respond.
Do you think I’m making this up?
This is no joke—I’ve lived through it. I’ve had powerful people who controlled my paychecks ask me to do things that violated my most deeply-held ethical values. It’s not even an unusual thing. It happens to almost everyone, sooner or later.
I’m not perfect, far from it. But I’m happy to report that in each of those instances, I firmly said no. And I was even prepared to lose that sweet paycheck because of my firmness.
But the key word here is prepared. I was prepared to do the right thing.
How do you prepare for situations like this? When they happen, it’s so sudden that you hardly have time to take a breath or mull over pros and cons. Unless you have a clear sense of your core values and purpose in life, you will be completely at a loss—and easily steered in a wrong direction, perhaps even in a manner dangerous for your vocation and certainly for your sense of self.
Right now you are studying biology, immunology, genetics, clinical procedures, and a lot of other technical subjects outside of my expertise. I can’t tell you anything about those topics you haven’t already learned. But I know enough to say that none of these subjects will help you in that moment of personal crisis and decision.
I came here today with the hope that I could show you a pathway—a process that will prepare you for those larger ethical and life decisions that operate at a higher level than those vocational skills. As I said, I’ve lived through all that and learned some things along the way.
But I’d like to do more than that. I certainly want to help you navigate through those moments of crisis. But, even more, I nurture some hope that I can give you a tiny bit of direction on how to find the good life—a vague term, no doubt, but something everyone of you must have thought about at some time.
I’ve learned that the best way of preparing for unexpected situations in life comes from literature, philosophy, history, and other fields encompassed by the term humanities. The term is well chosen because, after all, I’m talking about the huge decisions that are inherent in the human condition.
Even grappling with that staggeringly huge question, namely how to face death—which, sad to say, you will encounter more than most people because of your chosen profession—requires this same grounding in the humanities. I have learned more about that daunting subject of death from Socrates, Boethius, Tolstoy, Dante, Hesse, and Dickinson than from any scientific work.
Can you really prepare for death?
That’s a tall order, no? I hate to be the bearer of such bad news, again and again, but the blunt truth is: You really don’t have much of a choice in this matter. It will come, and either you will be prepared, or you won’t.
Which do you prefer?
Now let me shift to something happier. There is a good life—we have all seen glimmers of it, maybe even met people who have found it—and the humanities are also the guide to it as well. Many of us don’t know how to find genuine satisfaction in our work, and out free time is little better, increasingly a chase after the most mindless diversions.
Few people seem to have any idea how to achieve serenity and fulfillment on a larger scale. And if you doubt it, just look at the numbers—your clinical training will help you in this regard—and consider the pervasiveness of depression, burnout, hyperactivity, anxiety, self-harm, addiction, and suicide. Even as standards of living have increased over the last several generations, these problems have not gone away—they have accelerated at a scary pace. Just as in the old adage, people are gaining the whole world, even while hurting in their souls.
Your job might provide you with money and opportunities, but you need to have a higher order of priorities to decide how to use these precious, depleting assets. Once again, the best guides for this have been, for me, the shining beacons of arts and culture. Even after all these years, I still don’t know a better pathway to serenity and transcendence than music. I don’t know a more certain way of deepening my human qualities than poetry. I don’t know of better guides to wisdom and enlightenment than literature, philosophy, and sacred texts.
You shouldn’t pursue these things to please a teacher or get a good grade—although perhaps some people do just that. I have zero interest in changing your curriculum and syllabi here. Far from it. I’m telling you that you should embrace these things as a favor to yourself.
So I’m turning the tables on you. Today I get to write the prescriptions. I wish I had brought a small pad of official looking papers to jot them down in an illegible script. But I didn’t so all I can do is speak the words out loud to you.
Maybe I could tell you that music will make you better doctors. That probably sounds absurd to you. But did you know that 70% of surgeons now listen to music while operating, and all the evidence suggests that this improves success rates and patient outcomes.
Or I could tell you that doctors would benefit from philosophy, but Hippocrates—who gave us that oath you all take—was saying that 2,500 years ago. In fact, his genius, according to the wisest thinkers of his day, was to understand how much medicine and philosophy belong together.
I might point out that medicine is a spiritual discipline. But many of you already know of a physician named Luke who had some impact pursuing that vision two thousand years ago. And there are so many other examples, from Maimonides to Albert Schweitzer and beyond. Even today, almost 20% of US hospitals have some religious connection, and the number is actually growing over time. In many other countries, that figure is even higher. Regardless of your personal views, you have already chosen a career with deep spiritual ramifications—if not for you, at least for your patients and colleagues and communities.
I could make a number of other prescriptions, pointing you in the direction of literature and art and history. But all of these have already been validated by the best practices of medicine. You probably know about music therapy, dance therapy, and art therapy—you will probably even interact with those fields during the course of your medical career. There’s even a discipline now called bibliotherapy, which has had surprisingly positive results in using books as therapeutic tools.
And these are not just for patients. As far as I know, there’s no law prohibiting doctors from participating in these creative interventions too.
I will stop here with my prescriptions, and conclude with a long term view—one that inspires me, and might inspire you too.
Remember that bad news I spoke of at the beginning? I said that some day a boss or authority figure will ask you to do something unethical or illegal. And that’s a disquieting thought. How sad that the very people in positions of power will try to bully others into violating their conscience and core principles.
But here’s my last bit of good news. One day, you will be that person in a position of authority. One day you will have young people who you can guide and mentor, or bully and corrupt—the choice will be yours. That may be the most important role you will ever fill in your life.
At that juncture, which seems so distant to you now (but really isn’t—the years fly by) you can be the authority figure who convinces others to do something right and decent, not unethical. You can be a person who changes the way things work for the better, maybe an entire institution, perhaps even parts of your community or society. But that can only happen if you have a confident sense of your larger role in the world, a genuine vision of a better way.
The best way to shape that vision is through the humanities. They might not teach you that in your courses here, but nothing stops you from learning it on your own. Do yourself a favor—do all of us a favor—and make that a priority in your life and vocation to come.
Believe me, that one step can lead to a whole lot of healing.
Amazing. I was a pre-med student who changed his mind because I couldn’t handle working with bodies in human anatomy and instead discovered poetry. Yep, I was the reservation-raised Indian boy who chose prosody over pediatrics. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg won my heart. Turns out that I wanted to engage more in spiritual anatomy. I wonder how that might have changed if I’d heard your talk in 1988.
I am a retired Petroleum Engineer & high school Math teacher. I always preferred the humanities to science & engineering. Throughout my career I always had music playing in my office & classroom. Ted, this is my favorite Substack post of all time. I generally read Substack posts for at least two hours per day, so you are at the top of a large heap in my world. I hope you never tire of sharing your thoughts with your readers. THANKS