WHAT does literature really do? A lecturer at one of the colleges of the University of London says that he has lost track of the number of times his students have told him that a poem or a passage from a novel had helped them understand philosophical ideas.
Dr Carwyn Hooper teaches ethics and law to medical students at St George’s, a college of the London university. He has impressive academic credentials — a doctorate in law, a postgraduate degree in philosophy, and he is a qualified medical practitioner. Yet, when he gives lectures to his students, he doesn’t rely solely on the depth of knowledge gathered from his years of study in various fields. He finds solace in poetry, urges his students to read literature, listen to (Henry) Purcell and study the way literary criticism is constructed or how film reviewers come to the conclusions they make after watching screen stories.
“Art, literature and film can also remind us that ethics is subtle, ambiguous and uncertain. In my experience, medical students often struggle with that. They want clarity when clarity is the antithesis of the ethical reality,” he writes in his op-ed article on the Live Science website. It is titled, “Why I teach Poetry and Opera to Medical Students”.
In life, a thing does not lie by itself in a separate compartment without rubbing shoulders with the other. We are what we do and what we know, and no matter how subtly they work, they do leave an imprint in our daily ventures. An understanding of philosophy may make you think deeply about matters at hand, which is why some people are now urging economists to look into ethics, not just their daily worries about how gold prices rise and fall. Will futures traders hedge so fiercely if they know how their doings affect the lives of rural farmers?
Medical students benefit from the teaching of humanities in various ways, says Dr Hooper. Of the primary reasons, empathy and compassion may serve them and their patients well in later years.
There are other benefits, from self-awareness and self-understanding, to name but two. Physician, know thyself, is a useful adage to begin with before they go on to knowing other people. And literature shines many lights onto many aspects of human nature.
To illustrate the human capacity to forgive, he recites the line from Alexander Pope’s poem, An Essay on Criticism (yes, it’s in heroic couplets), to his students.
You know the line: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
Yes, patients usually forgive mistakes as long as the doctor is “honest and humble”, he tells his would-be doctors.
A new discovery? No. Many writers from literature’s past were lofty figures, high moralists with certain views about our conduct of life and how it ought to be. The retentive power of our mind is such that it will not just let these ideas pass unnoticed, as those young doctors find out when they themselves have to make an opinion or unravel complex philosophical posers.
The advantage of teaching these from literature is that the teacher can put ideas across to students from a position of neutrality. They enjoy and are made to think about what they enjoy. Even a jot of emotion will do because that is the beginning of empathy.
Why do characters do things that they do? How does that come about in a story? What effect will they have on themselves? On other people?
Narrative skill, character analysis, cause and effect, and consequences from your daily acts. And besides, children who read a lot will experience a lot more than those who read very little. Fiction is indeed reality served in a different way, but the effect from the imagined and the real can be similar. We learn not just from what we see and feel, but also from what we know.
Give a child a book and you will give him or her more than just ink on paper. A child’s reading is the beginning of a long adventure into many stories and a meeting with many people. And I have this on good authority.
I was at the Paddington station last week, where I saw an elderly person staring at a life-sized metal bear.
“I grew up with this chap,” the man told me.
“He taught me to be kind to strangers.”
I am grateful to two people, who wrote in to correct an error in my piece last week about keeping a journal or a commonplace book.
I mentioned a place that I called the Borroughs Museum. The place that I saw was actually the Wellcome Collection, in west London.
I write, sometimes, from the top of my head, and get things mixed up occasionally, in a hurry. I was, of course, thinking of Burroughs Wellcome and got the wrong end of a double barrel. My apologies to all and thanks to the two persons who emailed.
Many thanks.WAN A HULAIMI NST Columnist 21 DECEMBER 2014 @ 8:06 AM