The Institute for Comparative Literature and Society is offering a new major next year to cater to students interested in the intersection of science and the humanities.
The major, “medicine, literature, and society,” is an interdisciplinary course of study that “examines the social and cultural dimensions of illness and health,” according to the ICLS website. The major is similar to the existing comparative literature and society major in that it requires literature and culture courses in a language other than English, as well as courses in the humanities that correspond to a student’s chosen area of specialization.
MLS majors can choose to focus on literature and medicine, medical anthropology, or the history of medicine and public health. While some new courses are being created specifically for the major, many relevant courses are already offered by various departments.
“This is not just for premed majors,” ICLS director Stathis Gourgouris said. “But obviously, a premed person who feels they’re interested in the humanities aspect of medicine would be the perfect person for this.”
Gourgouris said that a proposal for the major was put together a year ago and was recently approved by the Committee on Instruction.
Gourgouris and his colleagues were initially interested in offering a major that combined the humanities and the sciences. It made sense for them to propose a major connecting medicine and the humanities, Gourgouris said, because of the growing popularity of that field, which is generally known as “medical humanities.”
“A lot of initiative comes from medical schools,” he said. “They are saying that though the students they are getting are very well-versed in science, they lack certain skills that they attribute to the humanities.”
Joseph Slaughter, the director of undergraduate studies for ICLS, was involved in early discussions about the proposed major.
“The major is intended to bring the methods of humanities-based thinking to think about the health of the human being in society,” Slaughter said. “Medicine and health is the more obvious place to begin to think about those interconnections.”
Students interested in global health, the politics of health, ecology, or environmental studies would also be a good match for the new program, Gourgouris added. Slaughter said that past students have asked for the creation of this type of major.
“I would say that I’ve seen eight or nine or 10 students who’ve been frustrated with the fact that they have to make a radical choice between the sciences and humanities,” he said.
The major is intended for students like Theo Di Castri, CC ’12, who is currently double-majoring in neuroscience and CLS, and who gave professors some advice on the creation of the new major. Di Castri said that while he would have preferred that students interested in the program be required to major in both a science and a humanity, the combined science/humanities major is “definitely a step in the right direction.”
“It’s a heavy load to do both, but I found it very productive,” Di Castri said. “They can’t require people to do a double major. That’s kind of asking a lot.”
The major could also help prepare students for upcoming changes to the Medical College Admission Test. In addition to testing students on biology, chemistry, and physics, the MCAT will add a section in 2015 that measures critical analysis and reasoning skills.
Professor Maura Spiegel, an associate director of the Narrative Medicine Program at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, said that the medical field is increasingly in need of humanities-oriented thinking.
“I think medicine, now more than ever, is so geared towards numbers and technology and ever-increasingly small lenses of focus,” she said. “Doctors are confronted with death and extreme sadness every day, but they never speak about it in human terms. This idea of putting language to one’s feelings and experiences is an important tool.”
Di Castri cautioned that there still needs to be a divide between medicine and the humanities.
“I think it’s rare that it’s all vogue right now—narrative medicine and all these hybrid products of science and humanities,” he said. “There’s a place for that, but I think rather than just merging them, it also needs to be kept critical.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Joseph Slaughter as the director of undergraduate studies for the English and comparative literature department. Spectator regrets the error.