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The Wrong Way To Educate: How I Would Have Handled the Pictures of White Dudes at Harvard Medical School

Posted by on | June 18, 2018 | Comments Off

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School, is going to remove pictures of medical luminaries from the walls of its auditorium because they are mostly all white guys.  Now, I don’t really get freaked out about this the way some folks seem to.  I can totally understand why a University might not want to give the message to an incoming class that they somehow need to look like those pictures to be successful.  But I am exhausted with the notion that the way to handle uncomfortable things in society or in history is to hide them from students.  This seems the opposite of education.  I have had several great teachers in my life who would use uncomfortable facts as a springboard for learning.

I can’t necessarily match the teaching greats, but here is how I might handle it.  Imagine a speech to an incoming group of Harvard Medical Students in this auditorium.

Welcome!  And congratulations!  All of you have followed very different paths to get here, but the one common denominator is that every one of you has the demonstrated intellectual and personal excellence required to meet the rigorous standards of this institution.  As I look around today, I see an incredible diversity of people — a diversity of genders and ethnicities and home countries and family incomes but who all share in common the desire to help mankind through medicine.

If you look around the room you will see a bunch of paintings of medical luminaries who all made great contributions to medicine and this institution, and in the process helped save lives and make the world a better place.  But the odds are that you will also notice that the men — and they are all men — may not look like you.  There is a reason for that.

The issue is not that these 30 men should not be on this wall — they all made important contributions to the study of medicine and everything you study over the next 4 years will build in part on their work.  The issue is not with these pictures, but the ones that are missing.  For every one of these pictures there should be at least one more of a woman or a person of color.  But those pictures are missing.  Even worse, the contributions of those people are missing.  They are missing because our world, our country, and even this institution made it difficult or impossible for brilliant people who were not white and male to reach the place where you are all sitting.  Medicine — and our society — are far poorer for this loss.

There are those who have suggested that we take down these pictures and hide this legacy from you.  These people have good intentions and want to avoid demotivating people who might look at these paintings and assume success will be impossible for them because they look different.  But I say that these pictures– and all the ones that are missing — should be your motivation.  All of you who might have been left out of this institution in the past are here now.  Look around the room, the world is truly changing!  This is your chance to make those advances in medicine that we lost in the past because we so short-sightedly excluded so many outstanding people.

Imagine you are back at this school 50 years from now with your grandchild.  You have spent the day dodging Harvard’s frequent entreaties to donate money and you duck into this auditorium for shelter.  You point up to the walls and tell your grandchild, “do you see, about halfway along that wall where all the faces go from looking the same to being quite varied — that was when your grandma was here at school.”

 The Wrong Way To Educate:  How I Would Have Handled the Pictures of White Dudes at Harvard Medical School  The Wrong Way To Educate:  How I Would Have Handled the Pictures of White Dudes at Harvard Medical School  The Wrong Way To Educate:  How I Would Have Handled the Pictures of White Dudes at Harvard Medical School

 The Wrong Way To Educate:  How I Would Have Handled the Pictures of White Dudes at Harvard Medical School

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