Sunday, October 5, 2014

three buttresses in defense of the liberal arts

Alan Jacobs wrote a great post about defending the liberal arts and my comment quickly became longer than his post. So I'm going to put it here on my blog, because as an aspiring medical educator I really care about what sorts of things are forming the people who might eventually become medical professionals, and the liberal arts are pretty darn important in that formation.

You should read his post, but what you have to know to understand this one: Alan talked about three audiences that one has to defend the liberal arts to: people in the liberal arts who really can't articulate why it's worthwhile, people who idolize science and rational inquiry to the exclusion of any other discipline, and people glued to the concept of financial renumeration for one's work (and here he mostly offers up anxious parents of potential Philosophy majors.) I think that he's indeed encountered a tough nut to crack with the third audience. Here's my perspective:

When I was 14 and finishing my first year of community college, my father sat me down and said, "I know you'd like to be an English major. Let's see what kinds of jobs there are for English majors." He pointed out the low income potential I was looking at and encouraged me to think about a career in science. (He later told me that he regrets this pressure.) I decided to be a Chemistry major (which I enjoyed until about junior year, at which I realized I was not at all a researcher) and switched to pre-med. I am now a family doctor and love what I do during the day (at sometime in the middle of the night-- babies come out when they feel like it!) with all of my heart. I am really thankful that my father did what he did, because it nudged me in the direction that worked out very well for me.

However, I still write essays, blogs, short stories, poems, songs, and longer fiction (go read my novel if you're interested! It's sort of about this very kind of thing.) I am much happier (and more financially secure) than I think I would be if I had pursued my original dream as an English major. I was incredibly blessed to have scholarships that allowed me to study abroad and take music lessons during my undergraduate career, which were no doubt incredibly influential in forming my opinion on this subject. While my experience probably represents the minority of would-be liberal arts majors (that is, I was well-suited for a medical career and didn't consider until I had already done 3.5 years of undergraduate study), I think it is representative in that many people (especially liberal arts majors) don't work in the field of their college major.

Thus, I think we have to do three things, and we have to do them with both idealistic students and their anxious parents listening carefully:

First, we have to recast one's college major as less important than the skills one learns in college. We have to remind the idealistic students that while they will acquire some specific knowledge about various subjects whilst in their major and that their choice of major will certainly be a factor in guiding them to a career, what a bachelor's degree means to a great number of people is simply that you can write a sentence, follow directions, and show up on time. Conversely, we have to pry this conviction about majors from the hands of anxious parents. I will never forget a biology professor at Hopkins very patiently explaining to a roomful of potential undergraduate students and their parents during a campus tour that there is no such thing as a pre-med major and you don't even necessarily have to have a biology major in order to become a doctor. They really didn't get it.

Second, we should make the point strenuously that Alan makes regarding the second audience: every good engineer should know how to communicate, every good doctor should understand the social dynamics of power and class privilege, every good researcher should know the Greek myths and the Resurrection story. If you can sell the third audience on the fact that being steeped in the liberal arts at some point in your life makes you a better engineer/doctor/lawyer/researcher (as the Mayor of my esteemed city recently put it, "Of course I like art. I went to goddamn Oberlin.")

Third, we have to reorient liberal arts such that Alan's lofty description (which I heartily endorse) of the liberal arts as a "way of life" is more open to people who are not liberal arts majors or working full-time in the liberal arts. I don't think this idea is particularly novel, and I have no doubt it's the sort of thing Alan does (that's the impression I get from talking to any of my Wheaton friends, anyway.) There's probably more heavy lifting that needs to be done among his audience #1. I think a lot of young college kids would be far more likely to become accountants or chemists if they knew that they could still take plenty of literature classes while in school and then continue to read (and even write!) literature after they get home from their 9-to-5 job.

In Matthew's fantasyland, taking point #3 seriously would lead to a greater appreciation of the liberal arts among those who have balkanized themselves away from such a "way of life" (or been put off by the academy's hoity-toityness.) If you'll permit my pipedream to run away even further, this embrace of such high-minded mumbledy-peg will eventually reach the point that we'll spend less money on garbage entertainment and more on quality journalism, art, music, and literature (or creating our own!) that will in turn allow for these professions to support more people who are gifted and dedicated enough to do them full-time. Then we'd have an even stronger argument to take to these money-obsessed folks. This is what I try to do in my own life, and I hope you, do, too.

Friday, September 26, 2014

around the web: healthcare and Baltimore

This summer's been a good time for writing, and I've gotten published in a few new places! I have also been selected as a Copello Health Advocacy Fellow with the National Physicians Alliance, so I'll be focusing a bit more on stewardship & transparency in my medicine-related writing these days. I figured I'd once again collect my writings here in case you missed anything.

This Demon Only Comes Out By Prayer and Prozac- I think addressing mental illness frankly is really important. Not only is it rather common, but it is often disabling and sometimes deadly. However, the way we talk about it-- especially using words like "chemical imbalance" or "personal choice"-- is sloppy and can be harmful if we don't recognize the interplay between mind and body that can help or hurt those who suffer mental illness. I tried to make the case for a more meaningful holism.

Beyond the Pink Police State: Community Health Workers- James Poulos' Pink Police State series at The Federalist this summer left a lot of people scratching their heads. I found it fascinating, even though I disagreed with him pretty sharply on a number of things. His central thesis is pretty spot-on, though: we're surrendering our freedoms for government-sponsored hygiene. I think that food, not sex, is the most important aspect of this, and I also think we'll need to use the apparatus of the state against itself and pay community health workers to develop a meaningful counterbalance to its regulatory overreach. I worked really hard on this one and it didn't get a lot of attention when it came out, so now's your chance to read it if you didn't before (or ignore it again, if that's what you please. It's no skin off my nose if you do.)

How Casinos Corrupt Cities- This one was a lot of fun to write-- if only because crony capitalism among Democratic politicians in Baltimore and Maryland reaches comic proportions quite frequently. My personal favorite is when our Mayor and Governor proclaim that they are "data-driven" and yet promote casinos, which are pretty well proven to damage local economies. I also mentioned a few meaningful alternatives to the sort of flashy downtown development that we all love to hate. I'm hoping to write more for The American Conservative in the future, which you should check out if you haven't already because they publish a lot of really thoughtful and worthwhile things.

Primary Care Providers Can Handle Hepatitis C Treatment- My first real op-ed! Now get off my lawn, specialists. No, seriously-- I love specialists, and they take good care of our patients when we all work together. But they shouldn't have to see every case of Hepatitis C in Maryland, because primary care doctors can prescribe these expensive new drugs intelligently. Maryland Medicaid disagrees, though. The best solution, obviously, would be for Pharma to stop charging so damn much for a medicine that's already going to earn them millions of dollars.

Mere Fidelity: The Benedict Option- I really enjoyed this conversation about withdrawal and engagement in an environment of cultural hostility to faithful Christianity. I will hopefully be doing more podcasts in the future and my article on the Benedict option is coming soon!

Medical Missionaries and the Role of Evidence- Slate published a rather poorly-written article exploring some of the deficiencies in medical missions and expressing unease about proselytization... but the author, Brian Palmer, really didn't do his research very well. I took the opportunity to point out where good research and quality improvement are happening and have been happening within medical missions, exploring the historical contributions that missionaries have made and the strengths of a Christian approach to health care in the developing world:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

top 10 books

I got tagged twice on Facebook and it's fun, so I might as well join in. (although one list said "books" and the other said "novels," so I'll try to stick to fiction as much as I can. I'll also try to avoid too much self-aggrandizement while discussing how much of a better person these books have made me.) I'm also going to cheat and put in a runner-up by the same author or on a similar theme. I own almost all of these if ever you want to borrow them.

1. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
I read this story about love and gods at exactly the right time in my life-- a time when my teenage self-absorption was reaching its zenith and my ability to relate to other human beings was reaching its nadir. It made me confront my own selfishness, and I think it's changed all subsequent serious relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) ever since. I'm also a sucker for a good twist at the end and a clever theodicy, which is probably why this book is #1.
Runner-up: The Chronicles of Narnia

2. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
My first exposure to Wendell Berry was in Jayber Crow-- which started me on my localism-loving life path that brought me to New Song and Sandtown-- but it was Hannah Coulter who challenged me to love the world around me in small, simple, faithful ways despite the evils large and small that are constantly trying to tear apart communities.
Runner-up: the short story Watch With Me

3. Good Country People  by Flannery O'Connor
I don't remember when I read this short story, but ever since I've written differently. More than anything else, she's influenced the way that I think about the end to which I write and how to incorporate the macabre-- which occupies a pretty decent stretch of my subconscious-- into what I write.
Runner-up: the short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" (which can be found in the same collection linked above.)

4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Sex, drugs, and techno-dystopianism. How could you read this living in the West after 1900 and not be influenced by it?
Runner-up: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

5. All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
A habit I'm trying to break (or adapt to) is my tendency to unconsciously mimic the writing style of the last thing I read. It was while reading this that I realized that I even do that in the first place and how I might be able to actively use that habit to refine my style.
Runner-up: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

6. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
I read a lot of books when I was young-- this list probably could have been populated exclusively by things I read before I was 12-- but Charlotte's Web will always have a special place in my heart.
Runner-up: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Sometimes you just need to be scared straight, and this book is exactly what every future missionary oughta read just so you can know how badly you can screw things up while doing things in Jesus' name.
Runner-up: Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo

8. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
A lot of the stuff I read growing up fell into the "Christian Fiction" rubric that was a bit heavy-handed in places. This novel-- beyond its incredible characters and plot-- helped me see that there were other ways of communicating deep truths.
Runner-up: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

9. The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns
Getting into the nonfiction-- though this one reads more like a novel-- I read The Corner in my first year of medical school. It opened my eyes to the world of urban America and challenged a lot of the assumptions that I had grown up with about poverty & addiction.
Runner-up: To Live In Peace by Mark Gornik

10. Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot
Jim Elliott was just one of those people whose faithful dedication allowed him to sow the seeds of a great harvest in a short life. It's encouraging and challenging.
Runner-up: The Zanzibar Chest by Aiden Hartley

I won't tag anyone, but if you're one of the ten people who read this blog, feel free to take this as your excuse to do it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Trousseau Syndrome

I've been working on a novel about patients and doctors in Baltimore for a few years now and have decided to serialize it so that folks can read it even if I'm not quite finished yet. I made myself a fancier-than-I've-done-before Wordpress site for it and I'm really excited to be releasing fiction to the general public again. I have no idea how it's gonna pan out-- perhaps, like this blog, it'll have about 5 readers plus whoever wanders over whenever something crazy happens like "Downwardly Mobile for Jesus" or 33 Under 33, Continued (seriously, Peter Gaultney, what a guy.)

Anyway, enough talking: here's Trousseau Syndrome!

Monday, July 21, 2014

song post #10: "come out swinging"

Haven't done a song post in a while. This one may not be 100% there (and we definitely got off somewhere between the second verse and second chorus) but man I like playing this one a lot. As is usually the, much credit is owed to Peter on vocals, Tim on bass, Julian on the second guitar, Jon on drums, and Evan for the mixing magic.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

a few quick thoughts on "Downwardly Mobile for Jesus"

Al-Jazeera America recently published an article entitled Downwardly Mobile for Jesus about my church & neighborhood (thanks to everyone who shared it and talked about it!) The author, Lawrence Lanahan, is a local freelance journalist who has done a lot of great work, including The Lines Between Us, a radio series examining inequality in the Baltimore region that I cannot recommend highly enough. It is especially useful if you're one of those people like me who is suspicious about the way that "inequality" is thrown around in modern political discourse; I have found it very helpful in understanding the dynamics of racial inequality in Baltimore and how historic policies are still producing harm today. He & I initially connected after I wrote this post (it takes some kinda mensch to be publicly contradicted and still want to talk!) and I was really impressed with his desire to tell the story of Christian Community Development in a faithful way, using New Song & Newborn as a lens to look at how communities of faith can address inequality.

There were, of course, limitations: there's only so much you can say about a multi-generational, multifaceted movement in 3200 words. I still don't feel particularly comfortable with the fact that the first picture you see at the top of the article is me and my family; the story is about us to about the same degree as Star Wars is about C-3PO and R2-D2. Still, I'm happy with how it turned out and how the voices of remainers & returners (who were doing the work of social justice in Sandtown long before us relocators ever showed up) are prominent throughout the story and do a lot of the heavy lifting on some of the tough questions we face.

I read the comments [I know! Curiosity got the better of me. Don't worry, there weren't too many.] and I figured that responding to some of the common reservations might be a good way to advance the conversation.

1. What you're doing wouldn't be necessary if the government did the right things
Firstly, we do work with the government on a variety of levels: for example, New Song Academy is a public charter school and the ministry that I helped to start spent a lot of effort trying to get people signed up for Medicaid or the insurance exchanges. There are a variety of ways that the community and our work has benefited from public funding or city involvement and while we are all very suspicious of any help that comes from outside of the community, it's clear that when you listen to what John Perkins has to say (including any of his great books, some of which like With Justice For All & Let Justice Roll Down have previews of significant-length previews on Google Books), he (like most CCDA folks) think that the government has a role to play in achieving justice for inner-city neighborhoods like Sandtown.

2. It's okay to help people, just don't proselytize
This one is probably the silliest objection because it ignores the facts that the vast majority of community members already identify as Christians, a large number of people in Sandtown have helped to teach or disciple me, and (probably most importantly) proselytization is a pretty standard practice in these communities. Furthermore, while the historic injustices associated with coercive conversions are real, they have generated a backlash that connects with a variety of other modern prejudices to suppose that trying to make a compelling case for someone to change their mind about something (often while helping them) is morally deranged if you include religious content. However, this practice is used by a variety of public and private organizations to impart a smorgasbord of moral values ("the arts are valuable!" "don't discriminate against others!" "soda is bad!") to impressionable minds. There are lots of ways to do evangelism poorly, but just because it is inherently wicked in some popular moral systems today doesn't mean it's wrong if we do it.

3. The White Savior Industrial Complex
This one is the most bothersome because the article addressed it pretty directly. It is also the most appropriate because it is a constant threat to the life and character of our work. Yes, we have outsiders in leadership positions. Yes, I'm a white person with a lot of natural gifts and an agenda of my own that can (and has) overrun the agenda of my neighbors. No, we are not perfect and often need to repent to one another. But I am working to bless my neighbors and give them skills and power. I submit to their leadership as often as I can, give them the power to rebuke me when I'm out of line, and collaborate with them instead of barking orders. The work of reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation did not end the moment that my wife & I bought a house in Sandtown; there are endless layers (both personal and structural) to sort through and the best place I know to sort them out is at the Cross, where my neighbor & I stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

4. [UPDATE] Be ye not afraid of Al-Jazeera America, my people, for therein thou shalt find good longform journalism and analysis
You know what I'm talking about, guys.

You're always welcome to visit New Song on a Sunday morning if you're in Baltimore; come & see for yourself what God is doing in us and through us. You can also read about our history in To Live In Peace, written by one of the co-founders of our church. If you're still up in Harford County, keeping following Lawrence-- you'll be surprised what you might learn! My hope is that this article helps to challenge perceptions inside & outside the church; let's keep talking about how to love one another.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

around the web: Mere Orthodoxy

Mere Orthodoxy has been one of my favorite blogs for a while and it was an honor to get published there. I most recently participated in an episode of their podcast, Mere Fidelity, which you can subscribe to on iTunes or any other RSS podcast streamer! We discussed The End of the Nature, and specifically the first chapter of Oliver O'Donovan's book Begotten or Made? on nature, sex, technology, medicine, and how people are not like IKEA furniture.

I will hopefully continue to write for Mere-O as time allows, but here's what's been published on the blog so far:

The Poisonous Fruit of the Randian Sexual Paradise: In short, "free market" Randian sexuality is bad for us, as it privileges a certain strata of sexual consumers and the people who profit off of them. Boring sex is the most important kind of sex and marriage qua marriage isn't enough to protect a traditional sexual ethic from the financial-sexual juggernaut; we have to create an inclusive Christian community held together by marriages. I was trying to, in some ways, help to translate some of the ideas from Wendell Berry's seminal essay Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community for our generation. You can tell me if I succeeded.

Radical Rhetoric, Siege Warfare, and Christian Population Density: Last year, there were two very popular articles passing around the evangelical interwebs (one of which was written by Mere-O's otherwise brilliant proprietor, Matthew Lee Anderson) that tried to attack "radical" Christianity as is popularly expressed by smart, faithful guys like Shane Claiborne and David Platt. I tried to critique their critique and point out both the strength of missionary institutions as well as the ongoing need for more boring, faithful Christians to extend the work of these institutions in unreached places.

The Death of Jerry Umanos: Filling Up What Is Lacking in the Suffering of Christ: There were just not enough people talking about the implications of Jerry Umanos, a modern martyr whose life and practice paralleled many aspects of my own. I wrote this tribute to build on the previous article's ideas.

Faith, Family, and the Dangers of Capitalism: There is not nearly enough suspicion about the effects that modern capitalism has had on the traditional institutions that us conservatives hold dear, and many are swayed by the power of The Market to do good. I sought to rectify that a little.