Historians make the best healthcare workersHistorians in the News
... The study of history is increasingly misunderstood as obscurantist, attacked or written off as the self-indulgent preserve of wealthy undergraduates. Luckily, the drive to recognise the value of history and the humanities is also growing. But these debates by necessity see the humanities and sciences as opposites.
From my particular hospital bed, it seemed increasingly, blindingly clear how much humanities and sciences – in this case history and medicine – truly complemented each other. As Gretchen Busl wrote last year, training in the humanities teaches us “the language necessary to navigate a complex and rapidly shifting world”. For me, that world was the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.
I spent three weeks in hospital last year with a sudden, rare and aggressive infection. The long days dissolved into cycles of drug rounds, ward rounds and blood tests, and my options diminished until substantial surgery became the only feasible treatment. Throughout my time as an inpatient, the historian in me accepted nothing, and questioned everything, as I sought a coherent story that would explain the behaviour of my uncooperative body.
My nurse was adamant that her sister’s training in critical thinking – which is what we historians teach – made her a better advocate as a midwife. Similarly, my own training helped me to find the right questions to ask my doctors, the right words to describe my uncertainties, and the courage to discuss them (politely!).
But arguing and thinking critically is only part of what historians, like doctors, are trained to do.
We are also trained to do the best we can with ambiguity. When I sit down with a sheaf of 17th-century manuscripts, I have to surmise not only what their long-dead authors were thinking, but how they thought. I need to work out for myself not only why they wrote the words they did, but also what they didn’t say: what seemed obvious to them, what they wanted to hide, what parts of their language were coded or formulaic or deliberately vague. ...
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