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A case for demolishing the arts vs sciences binary


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A recently published study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine concluded that an exposure to the arts led to a class of medical students who had more self-efficacy, were more empathetic and were less likely to burn out.

But regardless of statistical proof, we should be trying to blur the borders of these disciplines.

In a binary sense, the sciences encourage their students to seek objective truths, using justifiable methods which can be replicated, whereas the arts are about your subjective views of the world. But in reality, these lines are a lot more blurred, and separating them in such a dualistic manner can be damaging in how we see others, and particularly our peers.

If you have doubts over whether there is such a binary within universities, you need only ask an English or history student about the reception they have received over their degree choice. The science vs art student meme that sprung up online late last year demonstrates this perfectly, with some examples of the meme going as follows:

As these tweets show, arts students came out to have a good time and are honestly feeling so attacked right now. There’s a stigma that arts subjects have less worth than the sciences, because medics are going to go off and save lives post graduation. But a world isn’t merely made up of doctors, geologists and chemists; teaching is one of the most common routes for an English graduate to follow, and would you rather that we lived in a world without teachers?

And should the humanities need to prove that they have a worth? If Thatcher’s anti-theatre policies of the 80s showed, there will always be a subset of the population who thinks that the arts are worthless due to their lack of monetary value. But the arts enrich culture, regardless of whether they make the most profit or literally save people’s lives (though they can do). In a society without novels, music and theatre, what would we do for fun?

Lisa Ennis, of the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, has begun incorporating art therapy into her Foundations of Medicine course, partially to show a method that may be useful to students’ future patients, but also to help them de-stress during a packed university programme. She says that “it utilises a part of the brain different than the part they’re using to study,” and that “it gives them a break.” A recent study that she cites proves the benefits of incorporating artistic elements into a science course, finding that high cortisol levels - which are linked to diminished learning and memory function, as well as a lower immune system response - were greatly reduced during the course of the therapy.

If physical benefits can come from including the arts in science courses, why pause for thought? It would not only positively affect the science students in question, reducing their stress, but it may alter their perceptions of the arts students in their lives, benefitting us all. As William Osler put it, “[Science and humanities are] twin berries on one stem, grievous damage has been done to both in regarding [them]... in any other light than complemental.”

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