Spring 1986, Volume 3
K. Danner Clouser
Humanities in a Technological Education
This is excerpted from a lecture delivered as the keynote address for a conference entitled "The Allied Health Training Institute on the Role of the Humanities in Allied Health Education," sponsored by HEW and the College of Allied Health Sciences of Thomas Jefferson University (Philadelphia) in April, 1980.
Vocational education really has a lot going for it; for one thing it is so efficient, and cost effective, for another, it's so easy to justify. If someone asks you why you are continuing to go to school and you reply that you are studying to be an X-ray technician, or a cytotechnologist, that's the end of it. Everyone understands education if it is learning to do a particular task. But what if you reply that you are studying literature? Get set for a long exchange of questions and -M answers, probably ending with a dissatisfied, unconvinced interrogator. Today
when we are pressed constantly by our educational specialists to state objectives and measure the results - a technological training, a task oriented skill training, clearly and
neatly satisfies the formulas. But it leaves us with the tail wagging the dog.
What's missing in a vocational training? It wins the day with those who fund it. Indeed, it is too seductive. It's easy to explain to anyone who inquires after the what and why of such a program. So what's missing? It leaves out everything that makes us uniquely human. Where (in a vocational program) do we train for understanding, suffering and joy? Where do we gain ideals and models - for motivations, for patterning our lives, for fashioning our goals, emotions, attitudes and character? Where do we learn to appreciate the world around us: its structure, its beauty, its people? Not in a technological training, not in a completely task oriented education.
Where do we think about and entertain purposes, goals, and styles of life? Where do we gain perspective on our own life, on others, and the relationships between them? These things don't just happen, however much we like to believe they do. Educators have backed off these matters, have become "valueshy." They seem to live in fear of indoctrinating someone or of being accused of imposing values. They feel much more secure when they are simply conveying facts. But surely values can be raised, discussed, argued about, and thought about without being imposed. I think the value business is exactly what humanities is all about. Humanities involves us deeply in all these things - insight into ourselves, ideas, appreciation, inspiration, understanding, empathy and critical thinking.
There are some specific gains to be had through the Humanistic Disciplines which are not to be found in technical-vocational training programs. The first is critical intelligence. Learning a skill and learning how to follow recipes and checklists are very different from developing critical abilities. In a medical school setting, what I see myself primarily as doing is fighting a "recipe" mentality, fighting a cook-book approach to education, profession and life.
In humanistic studies such as art, history, philosophy and literature there is a lack of immediacy, a lack of task-orientation, a lack of practicality and pay-off. When the press of immediacy is suspended, one has a chance to play around with ideas. This is the atmosphere conducive to developing critical intelligence. A work of art, a classic piece of literature, a study of a historical period gives the student the opportunity to try out a variety of interpretations. In this setting there is a suspension of outcome, one has time for reflection, for contemplating possibilities - in other words, time and practice for developing critical intelligence. It is what we call "stand-back time"; there is a playful, hypothetical nature to it. Unfortunately I suspect that it is this extremely important element of playfulness which annoys "highly pragmatic" educators and administrators. Nevertheless, it is crucial in the nurture of critical ability.
It is being more concerned with what is true than with what is workable, helpful, and saleable. Others have to get on with what works whether it is a gadget, a business arrangement, a theory, or a therapy. That's their job; they are task oriented, and that's what is necessary to most of life. On the other hand, the humanistic disciplines provide the occasion for looking at a rich, provocative phenomenon from many perspectives - leisurely and without vested interest. The focus might be on a poem, a painting, a historic document, or a piece of music. In this process we develop the ability to critique, to ferret out the anomaly, to dig for an explanation, to uncover assumptions unwittingly made. One unanticipated spinoff from such an approach is that students learn to argue and disagree without acrimony. it's amazing how students who have gone lock-step through the sciences in college come to see every disagreement as a personal, subjective matter where a lot of one's self is at stake. How much better it is to lead them to see that disagreement can be very creative.
The focus, the procedure, the emphasis, the substance of the humanities promotes and trains critical abilities. It is the way we can transcend the technological world into which we are apt to be locked - the world of recipes, formulas, procedures, slogans, checklist, maxims, algorithms and other forms of "paint by the numbers," task oriented enterprises. Indeed it is in this sense that the "liberal arts" are thought to be liberating. They provide the tools for freeing us from bondage to systems that lock us into certain ways of thinking and doing. They are tools for liberation because they enable us to tease out, discover, uncover, criticize and understand our cultural determinants. These too are neither available to nor honed by a straight-forward technological education.
Another gain from humanistic studies is "breadth of awareness." I have often been struck by the narrowness of vision in trade schools, whether that trade school is Law, Applied Health, Divinity, Medicine, or whatever. Professional schools are conceptual ghettos. We get locked into a way of seeing the world; our purposes are set, assumed, and given; our methods, lines of reasoning, and understanding of our roles are given. Our years of training, conversation, and involvement with our professional colleagues develop in us a certain mind set, a certain way of seeing the world, others, ourselves, and our roles. That becomes our world. It is a little like putting on a special pair of eyeglasses which would emphasize certain colors or diminish others, emphasize certain shapes, obliterate others. For example in medicine, the body must necessarily be looked at mechanistically. From the very first semester in medical school in dissecting a human body we look for structures, substructures and all their relationships (the ankle bone connected to the leg bone, the leg bone connected to the knee bone, the knee bone connected to the ... All that's missing is "and praise the word of the Lordi") Our whole attitude is reductionistic; we reduce everything to functioning relationships among basic elements - organic entities or biochemical elements. That is the aim of our research, our questions, our puzzles; that is the structure of our tunnel vision. Contrast this with the perspective of artists in any medium painters, poets, musicians on the human body. They would have a different goal, a different emphasis, a different focus, a different vocabulary. Their concern would be lines, colors, juxtapositions, integration of form and colors, expressions of moods, emotions, thoughts, ideas architecture and dynamics of line. They ask different questions and make different assumptions.
The point is not that one of these perspectives is wrong and the other, right, rather there are two different ways of seeing, relating to, and dealing with the world. In fact, they complement each other. What I am stressing is the value of flexibility, of not getting locked into one perspective such that one automatically and irretrievably believes that is the only reality. As educators we should be developing in students the flexibility of being able to see the other possibility, to look at something "with new eyes," to switch from one perspective to another, to find the appropriate perspective.
Other of the humanistic disciplines such as history and literature afford us a look at other peoples, other times, and other systems of belief different from our own. When we see how the unquestioned truths of the past are today's falsehoods and myths, we may well wonder how the things we regard with such certainty today will be viewed in years to come? This edge of awareness might make us a little less dogmatic about our own current beliefs. We are humbled into a spirit of openness about new clues. Maybe we don't have the last word after all. Such an experience makes us less cocky about what we know or think we know.
Through literature we vicariously live other lives at other times. We come to know other humans intimately, identifying with their fears, hopes, yearnings. Our emotions, which science attempts to eliminate from its concerns and inquiries, are reactivated. Through literature we can "experience" far more situations, people, and emotions than we ever could in our own single routine life.
I see literature as the laboratory of the person. It enables one to try out different life styles, different beliefs, different patterns of person; to study what develops out of each; to see how people interact with other people, to notice how they reflect or contrast with the givens of one's personality. This experience sensitizes us to the nuances of all kinds of situations. As we learn about others, we acquire empathy; we learn about ourselves. If we come to identify and experience empathy, we also learn tolerance. This kind of empathy and tolerance is inconceivable if one is locked into his own narrow mind set, totally certain that his or her goals, beliefs, habits and routines are the best and the last word on truth.
All this leads to one of the most valuable pursuits - that of selfknowledge. The Humanities provide a workshop for developing personhood. Think of yourself as a work of art in process: emphasize this aspect, subdue that aspect, give more shape to your basic nature, color this, blend that, juxtapose some other. In poetry, painting, literature, drama and music humankind's deepest emotions are expressed and given form. We learn about ourselves in ways unavailable through any other pursuit of knowledge. If one does not have the symbols, concepts, categories in which to give voice to the emotional life within, it remains locked up. Giving expression to this part of ourselves can be both therapeutic and humanizing.
My claim has been that humanistic studies have the possiblity of being an antidote for what is most characteristically detrimental in a technological education. However, I speak only of the possiblity of the humanities being a help; it all depends on how they are taught. The humanities can be taught in a sheerly technological way in which the student emerges with more recipes and formulas. This would defeat the values that I have outlined above.
The humanistic disciplines can be excellently taught in a technological setting but it is crucial that they be carefully integrated with the technological. They cannot be treated like an encapsulated liberal arts finishing school dropped down in the midst of a technological training program. Students should come to experience the insights of the humanities as much as possible through their own training. At my school we try to integrate our disciplines of history, literature, religion, art and philosophy with the field of medicine. It excites the medical students about the humanities but it also sustains and increases their excitement about medicine because they are seeing newer and deeper aspects of medicine than they ever, knew existed.
In my experience the mood of a school changes when these emphases are introduced. There is a renewed enthusiasm for work - for their own technological work, especially among the faculty. Now, being able to see their work from a new perspective they are helped and emboldened to raise issues that have been in the back of their minds for a long time. Now their raising of them is justified, now it is legitimate to be concerned with values, with emotions, with diverse cultures, with personal growth. This gives a new dimension to their work and lives. This new enthusiasm undoubtedly rubs off on students, and teachers know they are really educating the students for life itself.