Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash
December 5, 2021

Liberal arts and the benefit of doubt

John Tan, CEO, Doyobi
2 min read

In the New York Times Op-Ed ‘A once-in-a-century crisis can help educate doctors’, Molly Worthon made a case for humanistic disciplines like history and philosophy in medical education. She called “the evidence-based hard sciences that produce perfectly objective knowledge versus the fuzzy humanities that gesture at feelings” a false dichotomy and urged medical schools to bring humanities and social sciences back to the curriculum. She reminded us some of civilisation’s best chroniclers of the human condition are doctor-narrators, from Anton Chekhov of yesteryears to Atul Gawande today. Formal training in the humanities also helps physicians understand the cultural context of diseases (e.g. why Covid death rates are disproportionately higher in Black and Latino communities) and makes it easier for doctors to empathise with their patients.

The same weekend, Stephen Fleming wrote a piece in the FT about metacognition and the benefit of doubt. He asserted that what makes humans different from computers is our ability to know what we don’t know. “The ability to doubt, to question ourselves, to pursue what we don’t yet know yet, powers the scientific creativity that created AI in the first place.” This self-awareness, coupled with the ability to act on our curiosity, has brought humanity forward over thousands of years. As computers become more powerful and as AI plays an increasingly dominant role in our everyday lives, we risk overestimating the importance of complex, technical skills while losing sight of the need to develop humanistic skills like creativity and critical thinking, skills that make us uniquely human in the first place.

Joanna Radin, the Yale historian, said, “med schools are recognising that accepting students on the basis of test scores alone isn’t necessarily the best indicator of the kind of health providers you want.” Jonathan Sacks, the UK’s former chief rabbi, wrote in his book Morality that ‘if we seek to preserve our humanity, the answer is not to elevate intelligence… [It is] self-consciousness that makes human beings different.” How we educate our children shows up in the type of doctors we get, the kind of adults our children become. For humanity to continue to progress and not become servants to AI bots, we need our children to learn to think, imagine, empathise, invent. Only a tiny minority has the privilege of going through a liberal arts college education (if college is still a thing 20 years from now). To develop humanistic skills in as many young people as possible, we need to be teaching these skills in K12 schools to all kids, not in college to a handful of college students. The need is urgent, and the time to act is now.


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