Why Doctors Should Be English Majors

In early May, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to see a production of “The Tempest”, by the Hobart Shakespeareans, a fifth grade class led by renowned elementary school teacher Rafe Esquith.  The production was scored, lit, set and acted by inner city ten year olds who, lacking funds for elaborate Elizabethan garb, all wore the same T-shirt emblazoned by an image of William Shakespeare, with the simple slogan “Will Power.”  I wrote about my experience in the blog piece “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On.”  Two weeks ago, an op-ed piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times decried “The Decline and Fall of the English Major: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/opinion/sunday/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-english-major.html?ref=opinionHYPERLINK   As I read it, I reflected on my own experience in medical school and beyond, and I think that Mr. Klinkenborg’s message is one that medical school admissions committees should be hearing loud and clear.

Despite the fact that doctors are faced with increasing mounds of paperwork and decreasing autonomy, medical school admissions are as competitive as ever. All handwringing about the state of the profession aside, young people still desperately want to be doctors.  Students who would vie for a coveted slot in medical school must start their resume building early in their college careers, and must complete with flying colors a standard premedical curriculum which with rare exception has not changed one iota since I applied to medical school in the fall of 1974. Students who major in the basic sciences—biology, chemistry and physics—have an advantage in the race for med school admission because they typically outperform other majors in their MCAT scores and because their majors allow them to get a leg up in scientific research.  In many cases, college students who are science majors apply for medical school with first author publications listed on their curriculum vitae.  And at the end of medical school, students who have taken the time to obtain a dual MD-PhD degree are the ones who are most competitive for those coveted specialties of dermatology, plastic surgery, orthopedic surgery and radiation oncology where the prize at the end of the road is a controllable “lifestyle” combined with high reimbursement.

But even in the rarified world of first author scientific publications in peer reviewed journals, there is that moment of truth, when push comes to shove, and a group of editors must decide whether to publish the paper of one author, or someone else’s.  No matter how brilliant the tables and graphs, in the end that decision will be made on how well the author EXPLAINED the data, how compelling was the argument, and how explicitly the new data informs both the reader and the greater body of work on the subject.  In the end, this is where those former English, and history, and philosophy majors shine, and surpass their basic science background colleagues.  Just ask Dr. Harold Varmus, the current director of the National Cancer Institute, Nobel Laureate, and possessor of both undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Harvard.

This week I worked with an excellent medical student.  He was bright, personable, and thorough and the patients truly enjoyed speaking with him.  We saw six or seven new patients together, and here is an example of the narrative on the physical exam on one: “ABD: SFT, sMS, NTDR, NABS, NHSM.” Say what?  For the non-MD readers out there, that means that the abdomen was soft and non-tender with no masses, abnormal bowel sounds and no enlargement of the liver or spleen. In this fast paced world of texting messaging and abbreviation, this old English major would like to see her own life history and physical exam written in English, please!   Why does this matter?  Colum McCann said it well in Let the Great World Spin:  “Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.”  Very few doctors will ever win a Nobel Prize.  But all of us should be able to tell a patient’s story, tell it well, and make sure it’s worth listening to.  After all, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

Yesterday I had the unique experience of watching a production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, acted, with musical accompaniment, entirely by a group of fifth graders.  Friends of mine from Los Angeles, himself a teacher at the Hobart Boulevard public elementary school, had invited me to this year’s presentation by the Hobart Shakespeareans.  As many of you know, punctuality has never been one of my virtues, and the 105 mile drive, coupled with the infamous LA traffic, had me sweating before I even took my seat.  But once I had clamored over Kurt’s knees and nearly fallen into Heather’s lap, I settled in for nearly three hours of pure magic, and not just the magic of Propero, the magician of the Tempest.


Begun years ago by their remarkable teacher Rafe Esquith, the fifth grade Hobart Shakespeareans of Room 56 are a group of underserved, underfunded children of largely Korean and Mexican first generation parents.  Many do not speak English when they arrive at school, many are on federally funded school lunch programs.  But by the fifth grade, those children lucky enough to be in Room 56 have studied the works of Will to the extent that they produce, in full Elizabethan English tempered with the sounds of rock and roll, reggae and Beethoven, a Shakespearean masterpiece a year.  When the lights went down yesterday, at 11 am, I was transported, and overwhelmed–and instantly moved to tears.


As an English major in college, the teaching of the humanities, and English in particular, has always been near and dear to my heart.  I believe that by studying great works of literature, and Shakespeare in particular, one can experience the breadth and scope of human emotion—joy, sorrow, aspiration, suffering, love, longing, mystery and hope—in short, most of the qualities necessary to become a good doctor.  Sadly, college premedical requirements do not include more than a cursory English class or two, mainly to make sure that a student can string together a few words to write a sentence.  The world of science and medicine has become infinitely more complicated in the last several decades—there is so much to learn about biochemistry that taking on “extras” like an advanced literature class, or an art class or a philosophy class becomes a burden, instead of a pleasure.  While many medical schools encourage non-science majors to apply, the truth of the matter is that humanities majors are significantly disadvantaged when it comes to taking the MCATs and showing publications on their resumes.


The Hobart Shakespeareans come to school at 7 am, and stay until 5 pm.  They learn math, and science, and history and geography and government but lunchtime is reserved for rock and roll guitar lessons.   They wear T-shirts with the face of William Shakespeare and the caption, Will Power.  Judging from the college banners placed around the perimeter of room 56, and the names below them, ultimately they attend Yale, and Harvard, and UCLA and Stanford, as often if not more than their more privileged peers.  And many of them will become doctors. They live by the motto:  “Be Nice. Work Hard.”


We can all take a lesson from that.


For more about Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans, go to www.hobartshakespeareans.org