Several years ago, I had the pleasure and the honor to teach the humanitarian side of Public Health policy at a major, East Coast, medical school. My students were talented, trained, gifted, and unbelievably strong and well-educated.
The School of Public Health wanted their students to have a more rounded world view. The head of the program was concerned his students were too centered on logic and statistics and book learning and that they weren’t focusing enough on the human side of medicine.
I was delighted to help. The sole instruction from my department Chair was to “take off the sharp edges” from my hardened and inflexible — “The World Is Black and White” students — and help make them find a way to sense a little more grey in the universe and to facilitate their hidden wants to add a little more flexibility and free-thinking to their view of serving the public.
My classes were a tremendous success. The students excelled beyond my brightest expectations. The department head and Chair were thrilled.
Unfortunately, my classes were small. To really make a “humanities effort in Public Health” you need to make the course a mandatory part of the training.
As it stood, my course was merely an “encouraged elective” and the hardest and most inflexible students in the program refused to take my class precisely because they were afraid their “de-edging” would sand a few points off their GPA and ruin their scholarship and financial aid.
I tried to soothe all fears and frustrations, but one student said the reason he dropped the class after the first day was because he “didn’t understand what I wanted.” He said he had no idea how to get an “A.” My syllabus was clear and and pre-approved by the department.
When the Chair questioned me about that student, I said, “I sensed he was afraid of failure. He wanted to know the one answer to getting an ‘A’ grade and I told him there wasn’t just one path: You could earn an ‘A’ in many different ways.”
Well, that variety of success — to a hardened and edgy medical student — is too risky to bear because more than one right answer means their work might just be open to interpretation, evaluation, value judgments, and even extrapolation, and that is deadly dangerous to a kid raised on getting a perfect 4.0 all his life instead of being congratulated for “Outstanding Work.”
My Public Health classes were filled with students who were already keen, sharp and delightfully well-rounded. We had a great time in class, but I couldn’t shake the notion that the students who most needed to take my class were purposefully skipping it because they were fearful of not doing well.
Without any way to reward or require those timid students into taking my class, the course began to lose interest for me as a teacher: I was rounding off edges that were already pretty smooth and shiny.
Last week, I read this great article in the New York Times, “Getting Into Med School Without Hard Sciences” —
For generations of pre-med students, three things have been as certain as death and taxes: organic chemistry, physics and the Medical College Admission Test, known by its dread-inducing acronym, the MCAT.
So it came as a total shock to Elizabeth Adler when she discovered, through a singer in her favorite a cappella group at Brown University, that one of the nation’s top medical schools admits a small number of students every year who have skipped all three requirements.
Until then, despite being the daughter of a physician, she said, “I was kind of thinking medical school was not the right track for me.”
Ms. Adler became one of the lucky few in one of the best kept secrets in the cutthroat world of medical school admissions, the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai medical school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I had a spine chill as I realized the Mount Sinai medical school program was precisely what the world needed — and what my School of Public Health was trying to do, except backward.
Instead of accepting students who are already sharpened and hardened — and then vainly trying to round them off with an elective course that they wouldn’t take after admission — Mount Sinai eschews the traditionally prepared medical student and looks for a more rounded global learner with the intention of giving them a slightly sharper sciences edge in their program, and that is absolutely the way to get real people, with true feelings, and honest human experiences, embedded in the medical profession:
The Humanities and Medicine Program provides a path to medical school that offers maximum flexibility in the undergraduate years for students to explore their interests in humanities and social sciences at top liberal arts colleges and research universities. The program assures highly motivated undergraduates admission to Mount Sinai upon successful completion of program requirements and graduation from their undergraduate program. MCAT’s are neither required nor permitted to be taken.
More chills! I love the Mount Sinai brilliance and vested insight and inherent trust in their future students.
I can tell you from direct experience that it is always easier to teach a know-nothing chemistry tables than it is to get a traditionally trained chemist to revel in the beautiful frailty of the universal human condition.