He had an overmastering regard for efficiency.
—Charles Ryder about platoon commander Hooper in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.
Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years.
—William F. Buckley, Jr.
Years ago, when I was in college, I cheated.
Now, let me explain.
When I decided to become a doctor, I had no idea what I was doing. My two older sisters, both bright and engaging, had dabbled with the idea of practicing medicine. However, after considering the lives they wanted to lead (and, for one, enduring the harrowing experience of poorly taught Microbiology), they thought better of it and found their calling as schoolteachers. My father was a school superintendent and my mother, a homemaker. There was no magnetic physician who cared for me in my youth. In all honesty, I don’t think I could pick my childhood physicians out of a lineup, including the ones who removed my tonsils and repaired a hernia. I didn’t particularly enjoy dissecting frogs in high school, never watched M*A*S*H, and always skipped Rex Morgan, M.D. in the funny pages.
And so, inspired by the vague notion that physicians are, generally, wise, altruistic, and well-regarded, I embarked on a voyage across uncharted seas. I had no idea how to get into medical school or how to be a doctor, but I was damned sure I was going to figure it out. As required, I immersed myself in the prescribed undergraduate coursework including biology, organic chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. After earnest cold-calls, neurologists, emergency room doctors, and general surgeons afforded me the opportunity to “shadow” them through their day. With the little money I had, I bought lunch for medical residents simply to pump them with questions (man, those residents eat a lot). Books like Coping in Medical School, The Intern Blues, and Learning to Play God lined my bookshelves.
The mindset of a medical school applicant is often dominated by the One Big Question: “Will I get in?” As such, my undergraduate existence was designed around putting a big “Yes” in the answer box. I needed to excel at my grades, do well on the MCAT (medical college admission test), get to know professors well enough to ask them for letters of recommendation, lead student organizations, and volunteer in worthy causes. While I was earnest and genuine in my devotion to each of these endeavors, it is hard not to look back and simultaneously see a bit of cynical and angling utilitarianism as well.
This is where I cheated.
Now, let me be clear, I didn’t cheat on a test or a project. I didn’t have someone else write papers or take the MCAT for me.
I cheated myself.
College, properly experienced, is supposed to broaden, not narrow. But in my frenzy to craft an airtight application, I took as many science (or social science) oriented classes as possible. In the process, I destroyed the enlivening education I should have gained from classes speaking to the enduring truths of human nature. Yes, even Biology majors had social science/humanities requirements, but I walked right past the good ones. Classes on William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen went unattended. Lectures on British literature, nineteenth-century American novels, and poetry were missed. Instead, I took classes like Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, and the Sociology of Death and Dying.
Now, I know that many reading this may reason, “Sociology, Psychology, Political Science, and Death and Dying are good classes for a physician to take!” Perhaps. But I would staunchly argue that whatever wisdom I gained from them is dwarfed by that which I have since learned from the great thinkers in literature, philosophy, and theology.
Gary Saul Morson, in his essay “Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature,” had this to say:
There is an obvious proof that the great novelists knew more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived. If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close. Still more important: Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects.
I couldn’t agree more.
And so the time came to submit my application. My grades were great. My MCAT scores were rock solid. My leadership roles were many and my letters of recommendation were glowing. After all the planning and angst involved in preparing for medical school, I was accepted to several. And yet, something just wasn’t right. Something was missing.
Once the onslaught of medical school began, all of my reserves were called upon to endlessly memorize and test while feeling lonely, sleep-deprived, and jacked on endless bottles of Diet Mountain Dew. The very human profession of medicine seemed paradoxically inhuman. And that is when it happened. Though I was submerged in more medical reading than I could ever finish, the books that were lining my shelves began to change. No longer was it House of God, How We Die, and M.D.: Doctor’s Talk About Themselves. Instead, when I looked up from my studies, the spines of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Prometheus Bound, 1984, and The Poetry of Robert Frost all fondly stared back at me. I dreamed of the day I could read about people, instead of bodies. I was beginning to understand that all of the science, all of the studies, all of our clinical understanding is extraordinary, but it is only an imperfect fragment of the true human experience. The patients I saw in medical school, residency, and beyond were not medical riddles to be solved, but struggling lives to be accompanied.
And so, beginning in medical school, night after night, my true education began. The great writers, thinkers, and poets that I began to read reminded me that my first responsibility is not to be a good doctor, but to be a good person. I found that extraordinary minds deemed to be irrelevant to good medical practice are, in fact, essential to it. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plutarch, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Michel de Montaigne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Alexander Dumas, and so many others have not only educated me; they formed me. I would argue the same for the Bible and Catholic writers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Benedict, Benedict XVI, Balthasar, de Lubac, Guardini, O’Connor, Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Bernanos, Peguy, Percy, More, Mauriac, Greene, Undset and Powers . . . but that is another essay.
Whatever one’s craft, these literary, philosophical, and theological figures are indispensable. They remind us of that which is universal. They stir up that which we in our modern world of efficiency, technique, and utilitarianism have too often forgotten: the intrinsic dignity in being human; the inevitable suffering that is our lot; the enduring hunger for purpose; the cleansing baptism of grace. The writers I sidestepped in pursuit of a medical education have, ever since, taught me more valuable lessons than the majority of my medical school lectures. Day after day, patient after patient, I draw more wisdom from Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens than I do from some of our more august medical journals. They remind me not only about “how” I should live, but they helped me to reframe “why.”
Before medical school, I was like the ill-read platoon commander Hooper in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Hooper had no fluency in the exulting triumphs or the searing losses found in great literature. He didn’t know what he didn’t know. Likewise uninformed, I was unmoved.
Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper . . . Though himself a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty, he had an overmastering regard for efficiency.
After years of shaking my own obsession with efficiency, I finally recognized the value of the literary, theological, and philosophical geniuses I never knew. Wisdom came late, but it came, and I will make sure my children are more wise than I was. That said, today, in many colleges and universities, the classes I chose not to take are not available or not available without a stern set of disclaimers about triggers, bias, and bigotry. To say the least, this is truly troubling. After two decades of reading these masterful works, I have found—like many others pleading on behalf of the value of great literature and the humanities—that these masterpieces are not as divisive as many claim. In fact, they are profoundly unifying in their transcendent grasp of what it means to be human.
Who does not rationalize, even a little, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov? Who does not fume like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet? Has anyone ever vacillated like Hamlet when discovering a new and troubling truth? Who has not craved the peace found in Frost’s snowy woods or Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree? Has no one felt Lear’s guilt over being unfair to a loved one? Who has not experienced T.S. Eliot’s conflict between our abbreviated time on earth and the alluring pull of eternity? Has no one felt the prick of injustice like Aeschylus’ Prometheus? Have you ever endured the tension between greed and generosity like Scrooge? Hasn’t anyone ever despaired like Auden in “Funeral Blues” or feared like Milliken in “The Clattering Train”? Is death unanticipated or does something in Thomas’ “Bright Field”, Heaney’s “Clearances”, Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” and Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” ring hauntingly true?
These are universals. They are no mere lark. No empty blather. No stilted haughtiness from a long forgotten world or a sniffing upper class. Great literature endures—and a classic is classic—because it speaks about the enduring in us. Literature tells the tale which abides from generation to generation, across time and cultures, weaving a common thread that unites us in our beauty and our brokenness. This is more than just a good yarn; this is the stuff of the soul.
I am a different person now than I once was. The people I have met, the experiences I have had, and the books I have read have formed (and transformed) me. I still have so much to read and so many ways that I need to grow. But I know what I once missed and I won’t miss it again. Twenty-five years ago, I cheated myself in college and I’ve tried to make it right.
What will you do?