Why A Multidisciplinary Liberal Arts Education Can Be The Best Preparation For Medical School

February 4, 2016
A stethoscope rests on an open book.

Speaking with the podcast The Pre-Med Years, Adele Wolfson made a compelling case for the advantages that students who hope to go into medicine gain by studying at a liberal arts college. Wolfson told Dr. Ryan Gray, host of the podcast, that undergraduates who study liberal arts and the humanities are better prepared for medical school, in part because they develop crucial social skills that allow them to understand the communities in which their patients live and the economic and social pressures that can impact patients’ health.

Wolfson, who specializes in biochemistry research and the retention of women and minorities in science, is the Nan Walsh Schow ’54 and Howard B. Schow Professor in the Physical and Natural Sciences and Interim Dean of Students. She also recently penned an essay for Inside Higher Ed advocating for a balanced education for premedical students but warning against shifting too far away from science training for future doctors.

Wolfson’s discussion on the podcast focused on why and how a multidisciplinary, liberal arts education—including a strong foundation in the sciences—can be the best preparation for medical school. “Every student should know sufficient science to be a good physician, and every student should know enough of the humanities and social sciences to understand how the world works [on multiple levels],” she explained.

Drawing from her many years of teaching at Wellesley, Wolfson also cited a study she published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, co-written with Professor of Sociology Lee Cuba, that demonstrates that science majors who take many courses outside of the sciences are better able to make connections among disciplines. “I see that as the ideal of a liberal arts education,” she said.

Wolfson stressed that she believes in having “the disciplines situated in conversation with one another,” which allows students to use tools and methodologies from different disciplines to understand a topic more completely and in greater depth. She added that this approach also encourages collaboration.

The podcast went on to explore how the admissions process for medical school has changed over time. Two decades ago, candidates were expected to focus solely on science—with majors in chemistry, biology, or related subjects—and on preparing for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which required a great deal of memorization. Communication and people skills were not a priority. Today, there’s a growing awareness of the importance of studying social science and humanities a well as science.

“It’s not enough to memorize facts; you must figure out how those facts relate, and [understand] their implication to your patient’s health,” said Wolfson. “Since information will continue to change, you want a solid foundation in core subjects and the ability to learn as new material arises.”

Wolfson then recalled a moment in her own undergraduate education that crystalized for her an important lesson. She showed up for a test on metabolism and realized all the facts she’d memorized were not on the test. “Having those facts is just the starting point,” she said. “Then you start to play with them, and you say, ‘Well, what if this enzyme is missing? What if there is a breakdown in the regulation of this particular reaction? What happens?’ Students won’t be able to do this if they see the material as “just a bunch of facts,” she said.

She noted that, with these skills, in even a course with the most daunting of reputations, students can find ways to think differently. “Our students actually love organic chemistry because it’s the first place they say they can be creative in chemistry,” she said.

When asked how aspiring physicians should choose a major, Wolfson explained that she selected her own, biochemistry, because she fell in love with the subject. “There’s enough time and courses in college to figure out what you’re passionate about,” she said. “If you love Greek, take the classics. Just make sure you find enough time to learn the science you need.” 

Wolfson’s message is: Find a balance. “There are things you need to understand on a molecular level in order to see your patient on a macroscopic level and as a member of society,” she said. “Don’t replace the science with [the social sciences and humanities]…try to find the best parts of both of those.”