Applied Humanities

August 13, 2008

You’ve heard of the advances in applied mathematics that led to the Google search engine and other phenoms in the data mining world. Everybody at some point has seen or head a joke involving applied physics, applied biology, applied statistics etc. But what about the applied humanities?

It is a generally agreed upon truth amongst humanists that learning to recognize patterns in art (by which I mean all visual as well as literary, cinematic, and theatrical pieces) better equips us at finding patterns in real life. As James Wood says in his book How Fiction Works (I’m having trouble finding the exact quote, so bear with me as I paraphrase) “Literature teaches us to be better noticers of the details in life, which in turn makes us better readers of fiction, which makes us better noticers of life, and so on.”

Two news stories I’ve discovered highlight leaders putting this thought into practice. One was brought to my attention by James Wood in the aforementioned book. In it Gurria-Quintana of the Financial Times describes the efforts of a municipal chief outside Mexico City attempting to turn his police officers into better citizens by making them read literature. On the reading lists are such authors as:

Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century classic, Don Quixote de la Mancha, as well as 20th-century Mexican novels such as Juan Rulfo’s unsurpassable Pedro Paramo and Carlos Fuentes’ gothic novella, Aura; it listed such highbrow texts as Nobel laureate Octavio Paz’s essay on Mexican culture, “The Labyrinth of Solitude”, alongside modern classics including One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Among other “recommended authors” were Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mexican detective fiction writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

According to the chief of police, reading literature will improve his officers in at least three ways:

First, by allowing them to acquire a wider vocabulary. “A policeman is responsible for communicating fluently. He must be able to speak well, even with delinquents. As his use of language improves, so will his efficiency.” Next, by granting officers the opportunity to acquire experience by proxy. “A police officer must be worldly, and books enrich people’s experience indirectly.” Finally, Amador claims, there is an ethical benefit. “Risking your life to save other people’s lives and property requires deep convictions. Literature can enhance those deep convictions by allowing readers to discover lives lived with similar commitment. We hope that contact with literature will make our police officers more committed to the values they have pledged to defend.

The second story I discovered by way of the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. This Washington Post story (by Liz Kowalczyk) focuses on a newish class at Harvard Med that takes apprentice doctors into art museums to improve their diagnostic skills. As you would expect of a Harvard class, such an innovative approach was not launched as a lark:

Katz’s belief that physicians can improve their diagnostic skills by observing art was bolstered this month when he and his colleagues published a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showing that after completing the class, students’ ability to make accurate observations increased 38 percent. When shown artwork and photos of patients, students were more likely to notice features such as a patient’s eyes being asymmetrical or a tiny, healed sore on an index finger. Observations by a control group of students who did not take the class did not change.

But it’s not just about becoming better noticers. It’s about learning that life rarely presents the kinds of cut-and-dry scenarios easily taught from biology manuals and technicians handbooks.

The most difficult part of the class for the high-achieving Harvard students, Miller said, seems to be letting go of their urge to find the one right answer. The Bodhisattva, for example, can spark a wide range of emotions, as the statue is towering and imposing when seen from the front but then “almost disappears into space” when looked at from the side, Miller said. As she pushes students to look harder at the sculpture, using a technique called visual thinking strategies, students’ observations become more complex, and they notice that the Bodhisattva is powerful, but also small and poignant.

So whether you’re looking to make yourself a more marketable person or hoping to raise Junior to take over the family medical practice, now might be good time to join a local reading group or take a trip to the IMA.

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