Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Sisyphus Was a Medical Student
Hippocrates fathered many of the ideals that are still revered in medicine. Fourth year medical school students recite the Hippocratic oath as they graduate and move onward, pledging to first, do no harm. Hippocrates originally stipulated that his students also bequeath their worldly goods to their instructor, a tradition that medical schools have also maintained. Other, less popular traditions have fallen by the wayside, for instance the moratorium on surgery or the fact that physicians were supposed to be celibate.
Recently, I also learned that Hippocrates instructed Sisyphus. Sisyphus was the first medical student in fact. Unfortunately, he didn't do well in his studies, and so, was doomed to repeat them until he mastered them. Current interpretations of Greek history maintain that Sisyphus was doomed to push a rock up a hill, not eternal remediation of medical coursework. This revisionist viewpoint is, however, erroneous.
Modern medical schools have modelled their curriculum on Sisyphus' experience. As with all modernization comes variation and improvement. Rather than endlessly repeat the same material, as Sisyphus did, which would in fact reinforce the facts, current pedagogical theory maintains that his experience is best mimicked by constantly changing the material. Today's medical student, then, is force to memorize dozens of pages of material, regurgitate for the exam, and repeat the process endlessly. Like the revisionist Sisyphus, the current medical student reiterates this pattern every 4 weeks. Since the human memory is finite, the hard work put in by the medical student is for naught, ulitmately. Though he may kill himself trying to learn the material, by the end of the next block, the previous block's material is 80-90% forgotten. He can take grim comfort in knowing that ulitmately cramming immunology is fruitless because by the end of the term, it will be as though he hadn't learned it at all, and the minute amount of retained knowledge was the information that was already in place before the course. I love medical school.