Monday, April 30, 2012


The April 30 edition of the New Yorker features an article about Stanford University’s brilliant success in its support of technological innovation, a strategy that’s earned it $1.3 billion in royalties. Stanford and/or its graduates had a hand in developing almost every household-word e-success, including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, eBay, Netflix, Intuit, Fairchild Semiconductor, Agilent Technologies, Silicon Graphics, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

It’d be hard to argue that this hasn’t contributed significantly to our culture, yet it has its detractors, however polite and circumspect. In obliquely criticising Stanford’s outsized focus on technology, one of its ex-presidents described the United States as having two types of college education that are in conflict with each other: the classic liberal-arts model and explicit job preparation.

The classic approach is designed to explore the human condition. We’ll navigate more wisely, effectively and kindly through our lives, its rationale goes, if we know something about history, psychology, anthropology, music, and art. High-level job preparation, on the other hand, aims toward lush Silicone Valley employment, or, on the east coast, Wall Street.

During the past generation, the latter model has predominated, not only at Stanford, but in American education in general, from high school up. We’ve heeded the pundits who warned relentlessly that unless we prioritize science in our schools, China or the Eurozone or even India will leave us in the financial dust. We've followed that advice successfully, but at significant cost. A friend from Mumbai commented, "You Americans excel at know-how. What you're not so good at is know-why."

Thus a New Yorker cover in October, 2010, depicted kids trick-or-treating while their chaperoning parents uniformly stared at their cell phones. Our gadget prowess now dwarfs the community skills—nuanced communication, civics, esthetics, sense of place, humility—that we might have learned in humanities courses.

Healthcare exhibits exactly this shift. We apply costly, hi-tech, often invasive and hazardous technologies where compassionate counseling would often suffice. This approach would work if the bulk of medical visits were for strictly physical derangements, but they’re not. Most current illness, from obesity to type two diabetes to hypertension to much of heart disease and cancer results from pathogenic behavior, including toxic exposure. We physicians, able to transplant organs and tweak genes but uneducated in the human condition, can only respond with our routine hi-tech hammers.

Medical educators saw this coming decades ago. When I trained in the mid-1960s, we were offered humanities tidbits, like the opportunity to discuss Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illich, or a course in Spanish. It was a decent try, but amounted to water off the backs of ducks anxious to get onto the wards and perform spinal taps. We simply didn’t see the relevancy, nor did the faculty provide a convincing explanation.

Today there are numerous experiments around the country designed to implement humanities more meaningfully in the medical curriculum. They’re up against a culture that continues to value know-how over know-why, but thanks to elucidations such as the New Yorker’s provided, we can afford optimism.


  1. Many years ago, I was fortunate to attend a 2 hour lecture by my soon to become hero, R. Buckminster Fuller! After a 15 minute introduction by the dead of the college, Bucky, all 5'1" of him walked to the microphone and dismissed every incredible thing that was said about him, stating, "I am only a liberally educated man."