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March 20, 2009

On Translation

Over at the blog for the journal Medical Humanities, Deborah Kirklin (EIC) asks an important question:

So here’s the thing. No matter how interesting (or otherwise) medical school deans and research grant making bodies  find the work done by medical humanities scholars and educators, the bottom line is (almost) always, what’s in it for patients? How will teaching students using art and literature make them better doctors; how will the insights offered by historians, anthropologists, philosophers etc help ensure that patients get better, more affordable, more appropriate care? Why, in other words, given all the other calls on my time and resources, should I support you and your work rather than focussing on biomedical research?

Rebecca Garden posted this query on the Lit&Med-ASBH Affinity Group Listserv, and I offered this comment, which I reprint here:

"One of the ideas I am working on is that, to understand the value of the medical humanities for illness sufferers, it helps to historicize the humanities themselves.  Our notion of the humanities derives of course from antiquity, but was mediated in crucial ways by the medieval and Renaissance humanists.  The studia humanitatis was the name of an educational program, with the overall ethos being a focus on practical engagement.

The humanists found lacking the disputations of the Scholastics precisely because their dialectic was not meaningful outside of the cloister (literally) and the rarefied air of the medieval universities.  They sought a way of learning and of acting that would encourage everyday persons to cultivate virtue in their daily lives, and they (correctly, in my mind), perceived the centrality of rhetoric to this task.

In other words, there is a serious case to be made that the humanists themselves were early translational researchers.  They sought to apply erudition in the service of virtue, and not simply virtue writ small, for scholars, but virtue in practice, in the shaping of moral communities and societies.

I think Deborah's question is absolutely the right one to be asking, but I also maintain that the medical humanities themselves, properly historicized, contain crucial keys to unlocking some promising answers to this question."

(edited slightly for grammar and content)



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