Learning Why We Learn: A Call to Action for all Undergraduates

Last month, I attended the CSRES Symposium “Wonder and the Natural World”, and I had a chance to listen to a speech by Dr. Richard Gunderman, Professor of Liberal Arts at the IU School of Medicine. (He actually completed an MD-PhD in Philosophy, and I’m actually going to be shadowing him next week.) If anyone would be able to talk about the pre-medical/medical struggles that involve humane issues, it would be him.

During his speech, he talked about how medical students are not interested in learning out of wonder and curiosity, and many medical students face challenges in which they fail to realize the motivation that would allow them to succeed. He went on to talk about how studying the humanities allows people to understand what they need to succeed. He fiercely criticized students who were learning for the sake of “doing well on tests.” At the end of his speech, I asked about how we, pre-medical students, should go about encouraging the pursuit of activities for the sake of curiosity and knowledge itself. Dr. Gunderman said that it was a great question that he had hoped everyone (not only pre-medical students) should understand. He said that Aristotle, the greatest thinker of Western Civilization, once said “The most important things in life are useless,” and that pre-medical students often find themselves approaching everything and only things for purposes that are utilitarian (ie., designed to be practical). The greatest scientists and physicians are the ones who explore what they do for the sake of wonder and learning itself. Dr. Gunderman said that the way we spread the true motives is by finding the people who we respect the most and having them talk about it to other students. Essentially, we just need to make sure that we talk about these issues. 

After I had posed the question, several professors approached me to commend me on posing such an important and unexplored issue. They said that they (mostly professors in the humanities) have found pre-medical students taking their classes (usually for the purpose of fulfilling general ed or core requirements) who do not seek to explore the topics themselves but, rather, only seek to learn things that “will be on the test”. All classes (not only pre-medical/science classes) can fall on a “scale” with one extreme being “learning because we need to get a good grade” and the other extreme “learning for the sake of learning itself.” I’ve found that, in many of my pre-medical classes (specifically in biology and chemistry), I have struggled quite a bit due to the fact that the class material is presented in such a way that the professors will directly tell us “this will be on the test”, “this is how we solve this problem”, and “this is what you need to know.” This lazy, mechanistic, and materialistic approach to our undergraduate education shows no sense of humanity in the way that we behave. I was able to talk to with the different professors on that issue, as well as several different relevant issues to the way we, human beings, perceive the world.

It’s time for undergraduate students to start asking themselves what the real value of their education should be. We need to engage in self-reflection on our own goals to find meaning in the things that we do. We should not be satisfied in learning, creating, and doing only for some sort of benefit of a future career or for another line on a resume.  If understanding the human condition is the only thing that sets us apart from robots and animals, then let that be the goal of whatever we do. 

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