A Novel Approach to Work ; A Variety of Professionals Are Turning to Literature to Gain Insights on the Issues They Face Each Day

By Sara Steindorf writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 29, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Novel Approach to Work ; A Variety of Professionals Are Turning to Literature to Gain Insights on the Issues They Face Each Day


Sara Steindorf writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On a brisk winter evening in Brunswick, Maine, about 20 animated adults gather in a corner room of MidCoast Hospital. The roar of a nearby vacuum cleaner signals what should be the end of the day for many of them. But members of this group ignore the signal, settling down instead at a table and cracking open the books they've brought.

Their energy may stem from what lies in front of these healthcare professionals: a nonfiction work by Susan Sontag. For the next few hours, white coats and patient charts will be put aside as this unusual book club ponders how to weave literary lessons into the text of their work lives.

These monthly meetings, they say, give them a rare chance to pause from a busy schedule and scientific conversations - an opportunity to think more deeply about their profession. "We use literature to help strip away the assumptions we bring to work, and improve our understanding of our patients and each other," says Peter McGuire, a family physician who has attended the voluntary seminars at MidCoast Hospital for the past three years.

Indeed, many professionals, from lawyers and doctors to teachers and probation officers, are finding that the lens of literature can offer deep insights into their work.

The Maine program, called Literature and Medicine and sponsored by the state humanities council, started in 1997 and has expanded to 24 of the state's 35 hospitals. In the past 10 years, state humanities councils in more than a dozen other states have started similar programs for professional groups. Meanwhile, a pioneer in the concept, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has served more than 7,000 professionals since 1981.

Help from 'Billy Budd'

Groups might use "Antigone" to launch a debate on moral dilemmas, "Billy Budd" as a case study in justice and abuse of power, or "The Bluest Eye" for a look at a fresh cultural perspective.

For former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Van Wathen, it was an essay by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne that shed light on decades of bland legal dockets. He was participating in a course for lawyers and judges when he read a passage on how nothing is so universal among humans as diversity.

"I realized how easy it can be, after seeing thousands of cases, to think 'oh, this is one of those,' " he says. "But you really have to consider the complexity and diversity of every human affair - and when you forget that, you start doing injustice."

Justice Van Wathen also used to teach law courses and would point to Oliver Wendell Holmes's statement that "law is more experience than logic." He says he taught the importance of "the vicarious experience of delving into literature to acquire a proper legal imagination."

Physician Geoffrey Gratwick says the Literature and Medicine program in Maine helped him "become more aware of the need to slow down, and listen to what my patients' needs are." He cut back the number of patients he sees so that he can spend more time with them. "It's fun to be a doctor again, and it puts pleasure back in the practice for me," he says.

The concept of book discussions is nothing new - indeed, it is as old as books themselves. And the notion that a cross-pollination among the arts and sciences is ideal harks at least as far back as the Renaissance. But more recently, it was only in the 1980s that the idea that literature and other humanities add real value to professions such as law and medicine gained solid footing.

Daniel Terris, coordinator for the Brandeis Seminars in Humanities and the Professions, says his program was partly a response to the reaction against US professionals in the 1980s, many of whom were caught up in money and status. "Many professionals were recognizing the need to not only have the requisite skills to do your work, but also to pay attention to your own values and the values of the institution you were a part of," he says. …

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