What are the medical humanities and do the humanities make us more humane?

What are the medical humanities?

I had spent some time seeing but not looking at this picture:

Window on Life, St Thomas’ Hospital, by Carole Nunes

Window on Life, St Thomas’ Hospital, by Carole Nunes

Now I notice it is called “Window on Life” and I see the significance of its inclusion at the top of our reading list.  Medical Humanities is the window on the life of those who find themselves within the realm of medicine, in practice or experience.

The “Window on Life” here portrays a biological life, mostly of animals, devoid in many respects of biography.  Placing images in this way obscures the usual function of windows.  Apart from the tradition of picturing scripture in the stained glass of churches, it is not often that they are “looked at” but rather “seen through.”

Likening this to Medical Humanities, we could say that this field serves a dual purpose.  Not only as the window through which we regard the pain of others but also as an object of inquiry in itself whereby we examine how we undertake our observations.

Do the humanities make us more humane?

In McManus’ introduction, he asks if it matters if someone has “never seen Tosca, [does] not know Mahler’s Second, [has] not read Paradise Lost or Crime and Punishment, or [has] not marvelled at Giotto Scrovegni’s Chapel” as long as they are a competent practitioner.  In itself a good question but then he goes on to link this to the concept of humanity.  For me this is a problematic and narrow perspective.  I happen not to have engaged in any of those activities yet, I may never do so, but it would be odd if my humanity were called into question as a result of this.

There is a difficulty in the question of “humanity” (as in being humane) as, much as with “humanism”, it eludes definition.  If it were just a matter of the qualities which make a human being recognisable as such, humanity would encompass not only love, compassion and generosity but also hatred, cruelty and greed.  The human capacity for emotion takes us into dark places as well as light.  Since the publication of Frankenstein, a considerable proportion of the science fiction genre has been dedicated to exploring the conundrum of what makes a human with only the intangible success of demonstrating that some non-human things could be called human too.

The exclusive elitism of the humanities’ heritage is somewhat alienating and as a discipline in itself will not reform a person into the possession of a compassionate heart.  However, the critical skills that can be learned, the reconciliation of diverse perspectives, the reservoir of human experiences open to contemplation are, if given a chance, able to open the eyes to the lives of others.  I do not mind if people in the health professions have never heard of Giotto Scrovegni’s Chapel much less been there,  as longs as their eyes are open to the suffering of those in their care.

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