Value of the Liberal Arts in a Pre-medical Education

Too often, pre-medical and other pre-health professions students underestimate the value of the liberal arts portion of their preprofessional preparation. Students concentrate on the required courses (usually in the sciences) and overlook the importance of the other academic components in becoming an educated person. Regardless of the student's major, the faculties of the University continuously attempt to guarantee exposure to the breadth of the liberal arts by establishing a required general education curriculum. Their efforts and wisdom are not often matched by the attitudes of students toward these "requirements that don't relate to their interests and major." Those faculty members who teach courses in general education become acutely aware of the strong relationship between student attitude and effective learning. Regardless of the value of a course experience, the barriers set by a student professing no interest in a general education subject can be an overwhelming challenge to the educator.

Much of the following discourse is excerpted from an article that appeared in the June 2001 issue of The Advisor. The article is entitled, Advising Pre-Health Professions Students in the Liberal Arts Tradition: Appreciating and Valuing the Undergraduate Experience, by Kerry L. Cheesman. This article and the discussion here focus on the pre-medical student.

What is the goal and aim of a liberal arts education? The goal of a liberal arts education is: "to educate a student in a broad manner, covering all of the major disciplines to a reasonable depth." The aim of a liberal arts education is "insight, understanding, imagination, and discovery; defining one's unique self, one's values, and one's place in the world."

Generally, a liberal arts curriculum breaks down into four areas:

  • Communication (includes reading, writing, speaking)
  • Humanities (includes cultural diversity, modern languages, history, art, theatre, music, religion, and ethics)
  • Social Sciences (includes history, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and geography)
  • Natural Sciences (includes the biological sciences, chemistry, physics, and mathematics)

What does communication have to do with being a physician?

"Simply put, health care professionals need to be able to listen to their patients, accurately interpret what is being said or expressed to them, and accurately record the information for other health care professionals. Patients also need and expect health care professionals who have the capacity to clearly communicate with them and their families, particularly as it relates to patient education and therapeutic regimens. Improving your skills in communication, including the ability to organize thoughts and express them to others, will greatly enhance your success as a health care professional."

What do the humanities have to do with being a physician?

"Health care professionals work with patients from diverse backgrounds who express themselves in a multitude of ways. To understand their expression, their beliefs, and their backgrounds helps the health care professional to establish a trusting relationship with their patients. To understand the special needs of cultures other than your own you need to be sensitive to who they are. And being sensitive to your prejudices and assumptions will help you to see where conflicts may arise in treating patients from diverse backgrounds."

What do the social sciences have to do with being a physician?

"The social sciences explain the institutions of society and how these institutions are affected by, and affect, individual behavior. Since health care professionals are part of a societal institution (the health care system) and related directly or indirectly to other institutions (government, welfare system, churches, educational systems, etc.), it is important to understand how these institutions have historically operated and how various groups within our society have related to (including been abused by) these systems. In addition, as you live and function in an increasingly global environment, it is imperative that you understand the dynamic forces that tug both at you and your patients."

What do the natural sciences have to do with medicine? The answer should be most obvious to anyone understanding the scientific base upon which medicine operates. How many science courses, to what level of science, and the specific content of science courses needed by a pre-medical student are subjects of an on-going debate in which advocates for all positions can cite abundant evidence, pro and con.

What specific experiences in the liberal arts should a pre-medical student select? The answers rest with the applicant who is best aware of his or her educational deficiencies. The problem advisors see is that pre-medical students often avoid addressing educational deficiencies until late in their undergraduate programs. Students who feel apprehensive about talking to an audience will be the ones who avoid taking speech. The best remedy for advisors is to insist that their advisees take those courses as soon as students show evidence of avoidance. This will provide additional opportunities to suggest they enroll in more advanced courses later on.

There are usually opportunities to cap off an undergraduate program with elective courses in the liberal arts for those pre-medical students who have taken full loads and have met all the requirements for general education and their majors. This is often possible when pre-medical students have reached their senior year and have the pressures of the MCAT behind them. Pre-medical advisors will have a number of recommendations for their advisees.

Primary web sites for pre-medical students

For more information

Contact one of the following pre-medical advisors:

Dr. Colette Witkowski* 417-836-5603, Professional. Bldg., Room 404

Dr. Amanda Brodeur* 417-836-5478, Professional. Bldg., Room 352

Dr. Richard Garrad* 417-836-5372, Professional. Bldg., Room 345

Dr. Lyon Hough 417-836-6485, Professional Bldg., Room 409

Dr. Ben Timson 417-836-4145, Professional Bldg., Room 407

Dr. Jianjie Wang* 417-836-6140, Professional Bldg., Room 339

Dr. Scott Zimmerman* 417-836-6123, Professional Bldg., Room 353

Mr. Joseph Williams 417-836-6782, Professional Bldg., Room 347

* indicates current member of the Pre-medical Committee

Department of Biomedical Sciences
Missouri State University
Springfield, Missouri 65897