Recently the Anesthesioboist wrote a lament on the state of premedical education--specifically the ruthless science-based focus imposed on/embraced by young students interested in medicine. She would like to see more humanities and liberal education in the average pre-med's curriculum, and so would I. Reading her post made me reflect upon my own long and winding path to medical school. Here's a brief summary:
1. Genetic background: my father is a chemist, my mother a literary scholar, so 50-50 on the genetic contribution to the science/humanities tendencies in me.
2. Upbringing: grew up with a mother who had her nose in a book most of the time, usually some dusty specimen about T'ang Dynasty poets, and a stepfather who painted and played the piano. I have the odd distinction of growing up in a household with not one but TWO grand pianos.
3. Identity during formative years: self-described bookworm and future author. I wish I could remember the name of the young-adult book I read which featured a group of bookworms who literally lived underground where they could read undisturbed. I can't tell you how much I identified with them.
4. Middle- and high-school experience: I was lucky enough to attend a magnet program within the public school system for gifted and talented students. This meant I got to study with highly-motivated and effective teachers who encouraged independent projects and scholarship in general. It also meant my fellow students were as bookwormy or geeky as I was, so even the social cliques were pretty loose and mutually accepting.
5. Undergraduate experience (Stanford): Thanks to an excellent public school experience, I was well-prepared for college--academically. Socially, it must be said, I was a disaster, but it only took fifteen years to grow out of that phase. I entered college planning to be a creative writing major but ended up being a psychology major instead. Why? Because, in order to enroll in a creative writing course, students had to camp out in front of the English department the night before the class lists opened up. If you mutton-headedly believed you could show up at 8am, like I did, you ended up far down on a wait list. If you attended class the first day, hoping to get in off the wait list, you were informed by your instructor that "Only students whose writing demonstrates evidence of real talent for fiction writing will be eligible to receive an A in the class. If you have any concerns about the impact of a non-A grade on your GPA, I suggest you take this class for pass/fail credit only." After hearing this, if you felt oppressed and intimidated by the experience--as I did, mealy-mouthed little noodle that I was--you put your tail between your legs and ended up majoring in something else.
Once I started the major in psychology, I must say I enjoyed the experience. The Psych Department at Stanford was highly-ranked and some of the luminaries of the field were still actively teaching while I was there. I did a senior honors project which taught me a lot about scientific writing and almost led me to apply for PhD programs in clinical psychology (more about that, below).
I was almost a double-major in feminist studies as well as psychology. Unfortunately, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 displaced me from my dorm and really sent me reeling, with a result that I had to withdraw from some pretty heavy-duty classes which put me out of the running for the double-major. The feminist studies program introduced me to a really interesting range of interdisciplinary studies in anthropology, political science, history, literature, and literary criticism. It also presented me with another formative experience:
At one point during my junior year I was considering doing an honors project within feminist studies (this was before I settled on a psych honors). I went to my feminist studies advisor, a historian, and proposed an oral history of my grandmother and great-aunt, who lived in pre-Revolutionary China and lived remarkable lives before emigrating to the United States. I was really excited at the prospect of this oral history, and I think I was expecting my advisor to be excited too. So I was crushed when she said, "Well, you're not a history major and you don't have any experience using the methods you propose, so I really have to say I don't think this is a good project for you." Needless to say, I never attempted the project.
A few observations on my undergraduate experience at a top-10 institution:
There is no doubt I got a good education. By the time I graduated, I felt confident enough in my self-directed research abilities to believe that I could learn anything I wanted to, given a good library and enough time. This is the core of a liberal education: to teach a young person how to learn, and to give her the skills to teach herself whatever she needs to know.
However, as the two anecdotes I relayed above demonstrate, the competitive environment of the university stifled any real efforts I made to stretch my wings and go in my own direction. Now, if I'd had anything resembling a backbone, I should have said: "Oh yeah? Well f--- you!" to any discouragement and proceeded in the direction of my interest. But I was only twenty-one at the time and had done as well as I had by following rules. This is an example of education being wasted on the young. Yet, even if my own spinelessness is 90% to blame, the remaining 10% I lay firmly at the doorstep of the university--and I have to say, these early discouragements are the reason why I do not participate in the alumni association events at Stanford. Even if I got an excellent education there, I cannot give them any credit for having turned me into the person I am today. Those formative experiences arose much later.
I'll post about my "real" premedical experiences and medical school itself tomorrow, so watch this space.