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If liberal arts are on the decline… are veterinarians getting dumber?

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It’s no secret a liberal arts education is less in vogue these days than it was 50, 20, or even five years ago. Getting a specialized education is what it’s all about. After all, if the end goal is an increasingly specialized workforce, it’s argued, does it not make sense to start specializing earlier in one’s scholastic career?

It’s a valid point. If time spent in school is an inelastic commodity, starting training at an education’s inception would seem to make sense. The sooner we start teaching children about their prospective line of work, the sooner they’ll become productive members of the workforce. What’s more, our communities will expend fewer resources on getting them there.

Economically speaking, early specialization in education would seem to be a win-win-win for individuals, the profession, and our society.

For example, if we know for certain we want to become veterinarians when we’re eight years old (that’s about right for most of us, I think), the earlier we can start learning anatomy, physiology, and pathology. If we embarked on our veterinary training at this age, it’s no stretch to imagine a fully functioning veterinary workforce whose youngest members enter at the tender age of 18.

Why not? If we specialized early, we wouldn’t have to spend all that time learning about iambic pentameter or reading the classics. And it’s not as if there’s something magical about learning calculus and physics that makes it inaccessible to middle schoolers. But then, do we really even need calculus or physics to become productive veterinarians? Hmmm…

Okay, so maybe that’s going too far. But perhaps now you can see where I’m going with this (if the title didn’t tip you off already).

As we reduce our reliance on the arts and sciences in favor of a specialized curriculum focusing on optimizing economic productivity, we’d be stupid not to ask ourselves, “What do we stand to lose?” (Hint: It’s more than just physics and calculus.)

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Call me Cassandra, but I think I have cause to be concerned. After all, our profession has been on a steady march toward winnowing out liberal arts in favor of an increasingly specialized curriculum for decades now.

Narrowed focus

Like the rest of our culture, prospective veterinarians are increasingly pressured to focus their lives wholly on the pursuit of a veterinary education. Schools demand a rigorously science-specific curriculum and countless hours of employment in veterinary activities prior to applying. This leaves little time for learning about (or doing) much of anything else. Schools explicitly reward an exclusive focus on veterinary work as evidence of a greater “dedication to the profession.”

Disappearing degrees

When was the last time you met a recent grad with an undergraduate degree in English, political science, or art history? Students who consider pursuing a nontraditional preveterinary curriculum by way of satisfying their academic curiosity are typically dissuaded by preveterinary counselors, if not by admissions departments themselves. (“Be careful! Schools might think you’re not serious about a veterinary career.”)

As an example, my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, regarded as among the more liberal veterinary programs, offers the following suggestion for prospective students: “We recommend taking as many science-based courses (mainly biology, as the spectrum of available courses is closely related to medicine) as possible prior to applying to Penn Vet.”

Little help from higher up

This isn’t just about languages, social sciences, or literature. Even our veterinary schools have turned tail on a more liberal, broad-based veterinary education in favor of a more “streamlined” approach. We now funnel vet students with specific career goals through narrower curricula so they’re less taxed by “irrelevant” information on species outside the scope of their future practice.

Less well-rounded

Of course, national testing standards have followed suit, ensuring today’s veterinary workforce is more educationally and culturally segmented and undeniably less broadly informed than ever before.

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Beyond the animal health commitment

It’s irrefutably reassuring to know our veterinarians have demonstrated an affinity for the profession for many years in advance of their actual veterinary training. Commitment is a plus, anyone might reasonably argue. But is that always best?

Medical doctor programs don’t seem to agree. Med schools are increasingly interested in a well-rounded education with humanities as the backbone. In fact, Penn’s med school headlines its requirements with a plea for a liberal arts education, seeking candidates who can “[write] clearly,” “read critically,” “[speak] other languages,” and who study the “basic social, cultural, and behavioral factors that influence individuals, communities, and societies.” (Penn Vet, by contrast, includes nothing of the sort anywhere on its admissions page.)

In case you think that’s because they deal in humans and not animals, you might want to revisit our oath, which explicitly addresses humanity’s needs. You also might think on your own job requirements, most of which rely on your ability to engage with humanity and communicate effectively with your clients, your team, your family members, and your community at large.

Moreover, a liberal arts education undeniably offers veterinarians an enhanced ability to think critically and understand the big picture. How else can one evaluate science, navigate a changing professional landscape with agility, and dissect one’s own human motivations and drives with confidence?

When you look at it that way, could it be that an extreme focus on veterinary science at the expense of the liberal arts is to some extent responsible for our higher rates of burnout and suicide? Could a dearth of intellectual flexibility and a reduced ability to communicate with our fellow humans actually inhibit collegiality, hinder the profession’s advancement in society, and ultimately prove fatal?

When more veterinarians focus on liberal arts, the profession grooms business leaders and clinician scientists, churns out journalists and other writers, produces politicians and leaders, and it succeeds on another level altogether. We need these people, too, don’t we?

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What kind of a profession will we become if we can’t play these roles? How will we advance the profession in the context of a changing global marketplace, not to mention public health and animal welfare?

It’s worth thinking about, as we recruit prospective school students, mentor colleagues, and continually improve ourselves. After all, it’s never too late to get a liberal arts education.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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