One More Thing That Literature Is Good For


A few weeks ago, I went to a dermatologist to have something on my nose removed. He said less than two sentences to me, asked me one question he didn’t listen to the answer to, ignored my protests, had a nurse hold me down, stuck a large needle in my nose with no warning, and then dug the thing out with a scalpel even though the anesthesia was barely working.

He removed it with no scarring, and insurance paid for it, so I guess I can’t complain too much, but man, did he have to be such an asshole?

Why are so many doctors such jerks? Most likely, it’s because of the way they’re trained to think. But now, it seems, some  are trying to remedy the problem by getting doctors to read literature. (via)

Said one doctor: “If you want to understand what someone who is dying is going through, the highs and lows, the emotions, read Tolstoy’s `The Death of Ivan Illyich.’ … One hundred years before Kubler-Ross identified the stages of dying, Tolstoy had it.”

Reading literature helps doctors to understand their patients, to empathize with them, and to better comprehend the less concrete aspects of illness and the experience of living. One study showed that these programs made significant gains in doctor performance and in the doctor’s overall well-being.

“So much of the expectations on them are black and white, to have an answer. (Literature) helps them fit into that hard space, of not necessarily knowing the answer,” says Elizabeth Sinclair, the coordinator of the program in Maine that started this trend.

All of which is, undoubtedly, a good thing. But now that it’s being conclusively shown that the humanities actually do amazing things for people whose job it is to save lives, could we maybe get some funding over here? (And I’m not even going to get into what the humanities could do for lawyers, politicians, bankers, marketing consultants, and other empathy-deprived groups)

Because right now, as someone about to go on the job market in the humanities, I can tell you that it’s looking bleak. Humanities budgets are being cut worldwide, and humanities teachers are being cast aside like an ex you accidentally slept with again after a long night of drinking.

Politicians and other education funders seem to think that humanities teachers and practitioners are like leeches,  creepy-looking blood-suckers that feed on the funding sources of other, more sensible, more practical, more hygienic positivists. But now it turns out that, like leeches, we’re actually helpful sometimes. So maybe they should keep us around? Maybe we could even teach them how to stop being assholes.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →