First in a series of posts titled Reasons To Study Literature. Reason #1: It’s essential to the practice of medicine.

From an article by Harriet Squire, professor of medicine at Michigan State University:

The longer I practice medicine, and the longer I teach medical students, the centrality of literature to my work becomes ever clearer. Every day in the office, I listen to patient’s stories; I hear about their pain, suffering, hopes, dreams, loves, and losses. Through my patient’s stories, just as through literature, I learn how and why people suffer, and how they heal. I learn how people’s philosophies and experiences affect how they see the world and how they go about living in it. These topics were blatantly left out of my formal medical education. My own background in literature has helped me to analyze, as well as to elicit, my patient’s stories.

Without a sound and extensive knowledge of people and of human nature, a doctor operates in a vacuum. “Noncompliance” becomes an enigma, rather than the logical outgrowth of a person’s life choices. Recommending tests and treatment becomes an adversarial activity rather than a discussion and negotiation with the patient’s value system and life situation.

Literature provides us with more extensive exposure to a variety of people than we can assure through medical practice alone, especially for beginning doctors and students. Moreover, through literature, we see what parts of human interaction can give others strength, and which parts cause them harm. We see how people change, and why they don’t. We see what threatens them and what nourishes them. By knowing literary characters, we enlarge our ability to know people in general and our patients in particular.

Squire’s use of literature to teach medicine is of course the kind of thing a literature professor likes to hear. (“Look, ma, what I has done is important!”)

The way she describes literature, however, is not the way our discipline has described it for some time. At least officially. The basic move towards methodical, theoretical, historicized study of literature has been going on (at least) since the Renaissance. But that move–let’s call it the scholarly impulse–has always been balanced against what we might call the storytelling impulse. It’s deep-rooted in human nature to turn to literature in search of human experience, moral instruction, and practical wisdom (Aristotelian phronesis).

As much as scholars have liked to insist (over the last thirty years maybe) that they were less interested in morality than theory, that claim rings hollow when you think about just how explicitly some of the most popular fields of study took up questions of ethics and morality: gender and race studies, postcolonialism, etc. But even these disciplines were not immune to the scholarly impulse. When important questions are framed in such a way as to make them inaccessible to the common reader, something is going to be lost.

It should be possible, if not easy, to bridge the distance between these two questions in a way that has always been part of the practice of literature. (And of course there are a lot of examples of public intellectuals who have taken steps in this direction.) Still, I think that more can and should be done until we can figure out a way to make a serious, substantial, and most importantly persuasive case for the humanities and the value of what it is we do.

I don’t propose to do that in a single blog post, of course. But the larger question is how to balance the gains from methodical sophistication with the need to make literature relevant to more commonplace concerns–and Squire offers one quite nice example of the practical usefulness of literature, I think.

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