A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

The Pre-Med Student and the French Surrealist

Long ago and in a place that seems further and further away the older I get, I befriended the oral surgeon who operated on my jaw. She had—it seemed to me at the time magical—ability to anticipate the next spike of pain: a microsecond before the pain escalated to intolerable, she firmly pressed with her left index any one of a number of precise points on my cheek, forehead or neck.  Instantly, the pain subsided.

In a post-op consultation, I inquired about this magic: had medical school made her memorize the precise location of all the dendrites (more numerous than the stars of the Milky Way or the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world) of the Trigeminal and Phrenic nerves? Was this some secret ancient wisdom, or common-knowledge  acupuncture? She told me she was not aware that she was doing what I described.  I asked her if she knew about the story of Utzi, the Neolithic traveler who was murdered in the high Alps 8,000 years ago, and whose perfectly (nature-made) mummy was found in a melting glacier of the Ötzal Alps right at the border of Austria and Italy.  This 8,000-year-old man, I told her, had tattoos marking specific acupuncture nodes.  A traditional Chinese doctor told the world’s scientists that Utzi must have suffered from kidney stones and digestive disorders.   She thanked me for that tidbit of esoterica, and we both agreed that a practice does not survive 8,000 years if it is not at least somewhat effective. However, she was much more interested in the fact that in the waiting room I had been poring over the collected poems of an obscure surrealist poet of Post-WWI France.  It was then and there that we became life-long friends, I think—it is all so far away, I cannot be sure. And, ultimately, such details are not necessarily relevant to this story.

Fast forward to Spring 2015.  Shortly after Spring Break, a student in my College Composition course entitled Writing About European Civilization, approaches me after class and tells me that because she is pre-med she needs an A in my class but, because Literature and Civilization are so much less important than science, it is even more crucial that she ace a BIO class, and would I please give her an A even if she misses the last 3 weeks of my class in order to cram for the Bio final? The reason, you see, was that she simply did not have time for French Surrealist poetry.

A dozen potential responses flooded my brain, including “well even doctors need to know time management or the idea of seeing a commitment through to the end…”  But I bit my tongue and instead—to my own surprise—I heard myself saying “Ok, but your final paper is now 20 pages instead of 15 and… what do you know about acupuncture in Neolithic Europe?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share Post

6 comments to The Pre-Med Student and the French Surrealist

  • Ray E. Skrabut

    Dear Yves,

    It sounds like we think alike. I have been teaching Comparative Literature 102W for the past five years (I can’t believe I’m beginning my sixth year next week), and my attitude towards students of the ilk you describe above has both changed and hardened over time.

    I feel many students have been groomed since they first entered the schooling system to expect a “trophy” for participation rather than earning one. I explain to such a student that they would be better served by changing classes, since their grade in my class will be assigned based solely on the turned in written work.

    That, plus I would most likely internally fume about the sheer gall of such an expectation/pronouncement on the student’s part.


  • Dear Ray,
    Many thanks for your comment on my post: You are absolutely on target in your observation that these students expect (and in some cases think they can demand) a trophy, as if just registering for the course and showing up to class from time to time is all that is required.
    I do agree with you that such expectations are galling, but I am not entirely certain that we (as cogs in “the system”) are not partially at fault as well. Parents, educators and the media reinforce the idea of education as a practical tool for socio-economic advancement; very few of us, it seems, seriously attempt to advocate a life philosophy of knowledge for its intrinsic value (a hard sell, I grant you). We scaled back the foreign language requirement because it is not perceived as “useful” to speak another language given that virtually the whole world speaks English. And, unless, you are a History major, it is conceivable that you could graduate from Queens College without having been exposed to the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, the Greek Miracle 2,500 years ago, the Han Dynasty, the Moorish scholars of Grenada, The Revolution of 1917, European Colonialism…or any other of the hundreds of “bits of knowledge,” absent which I cannot conceive one might consider oneself “an educated citizen of the world.”
    For me, it comes down to the question: what kind of doctors, engineers, architects, accountants, lawyers… does a public university hope to produce?
    Me, I hope to be treated only by doctors who—among other things—read poetry and know that acupuncture was practiced 8,000 years ago.

  • Dear Yves,

    It is worrisome that science is increasingly pitted against other disciplines. Most good scientists that I know have good knowledge of history and literature, speak several languages, enjoy or create music, and have an artistic side. In other words, they are educated citizens of the world. A case in point would be the late Oliver Sacks, who excelled at composition, music, and understanding of the human spirit.

  • Dear Elizabeth,
    many thanks for your comment on the post. Yes, to my mind all the great scientists–almost by definition–are well-rounded human beings. I understand and accept (though with regret) that in second decade of the 21st century and going forward it is no longer possible to be a truly “Renaissance” person, that is to say, someone with extensive expertise in multiple fields of inquiry. The complexity of many disciplines (Quantum Physics or Genetic Engineering come to mind, among many more) simply precludes studying very much else in great depth, and the possibility of a truly knowledgeable amateur in a scientific field seems less and less of a possibility.
    All of that notwithstanding, I believe we (educators in the broad sense of the word) do future generations a disservice when we do not at the very least suggest that knowledge need not be purely utilitarian (i.e: job/career-oriented) but can, in fact, be its own reward.
    I have argued this in my classes with varying degrees of success.
    I think it is crucial that we pay attention to what narrative(s) we construct around the necessity in the 21st century of a college education.

  • Hi Yves,

    I just wanted to say, I really love the way this post was written. Perfect example of form meeting content. Its style, the anecdote and juxtaposition of the ancient legend with the contemporary, (though dated in your memory) oral surgeon visit, embodied the point you were trying to make.



  • Yves Cloarec

    Thank you for those kind words. The connection of form to content is something I really try to teach in my writing classes: we humans are a complex bunch and, as Elizabeth suggests in her post above, we are never just one thing (a mathematician can also be a poet, a doctor can also be a philosopher…) and our writing should be just as multi-faceted as we are; it should be a true reflection of what we think and feel at the time we are writing. For me, that is the best kind of writing there is.
    All best