Education and Excellence

“Intelligence plus character-That’s the goal of true education.” 

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This past weekend I attended my Med School class reunion. I graduated from Washington University School of Medicine 45 years ago. I had the honor to host the members of the class that were able to attend. A few of my friends have died. I was surprised by how many of them could not come because they were too busy with work or volunteer commitments.

Those who made it had a great time. On Thursday and Friday evenings we had a chance to catch up with what had gone on in our personal and professional lives. On Saturday evening a few alumni who had accomplished extraordinary things were honored. I was impressed.

People who have in some way come in contact with Wash U. have helped to find the HIV virus, and have secured proper diagnosis and treatment for millions of people. Cancer genes have been sequenced; mental illness genes have been studied; new insights into severe digestive illnesses have been found. Poor people have found access to care; those of us who decided to spend our lives in clinical medicine have helped tens of thousands of people to regain their health. The list is endless. To boot, these extraordinarily busy people have found the time to help to educate a new generation of doctors.

It was a time for reflection. Four decades ago I’m sure that none of us had any idea that we’d be able to accomplish what we have. We sort of fell into routines of work and study; at some point the sheer volume of success must have sunk in; maybe not. What turns a group of young students into a World Class?

As Dr. King said, intelligence and character count. We had dozens of professors who were married to their commitment to teach. There were only two commandments: work hard and care for the patients. Yes, we had great facilities and many doors were opened for us. But in the end it all came down to the individual, because no one did our learning for us. Many years ago, a group of strangers to us spent many hours weighing hundreds of pieces of paper: our med school applications. Somehow they managed to pick up on a fleck of promise that this or that student showed. In seemingly arbitrary fashion acceptance letters went out to a hundred kids. A class was born.

The beauty of universities; of any place of learning. To bring together dozens of people with raw talent, many of them who have no knowledge that they are good at this or that. To expose them to learning at the same time that their souls are fed and their needs are met. To know when to push and how to let up on the pressure. To set up the adequate infrastructure to make sure that once these pupils leave they have a job, or a clear path to follow. To give them hope.

When you manage to accomplish these goals year after year, for decades on end; when your institution expects this kind of success without for a minute becoming complacent; this is when you earn the right to call yourself world class.

All of this costs money. Education in our country is at a difficult crossroads. We have to find a way to make it cheaper to learn. Computers and recorded classes will eventually be responsible for passing on the knowledge that we received one on one. But I wonder if a raw young kid who sits five hundred miles away from a mentor for three hours a week will be able to absorb the humanistic thrust that we were drilled on.

I hear that the plan is to allow a few of the world class institutions to survive. That the rest of our youngsters will be asked to learn in a more inanimate environment. That only the children of the great will have the means and the background to succeed their parents.

I started out as a Puerto Rican kid who was born in a rural town. I understand that college is not for everyone; I know that we will always need people who can build and fix things, and cook, and entertain us with sports and songs. Yet, if I were born today, and I had what it takes, will I ever have a chance to be part of a World Class? Is this the way we want our system to go? Shouldn’t we be willing to spend what it takes to give everyone a chance?

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