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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: The value of a liberal arts education in the wake of H.B. 259

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As a soon-to-be “triple Tar Heel” who has benefitted from education in STEM and the humanities from UNC, I am in a unique position to comment on House Bill 259, which limits funding of distinguished professorships within the UNC System to only STEM fields.

I am a medical student at the UNC School of Medicine who will graduate in May 2024. Certainly, my B.S. in biology gave me a firm foundation to understand pathophysiology and therapeutics to properly treat my patients. I can’t speak highly enough of the world-class STEM professors who contributed to my education. But it is my second major and master’s in English that helped me start to become the kind of doctor I aspire to be.

To study the humanities is, fundamentally, to enter others’ perspectives through stories, poetry and art; to think critically about these perspectives, situating them within their social contexts; and to form one’s own opinions about the themes these works of art represent. The same can be said of the physician’s approach to a patient: We must listen for a patient’s stories, piecing together the history they tell us with charts, labs and imaging. We must understand how the world in which they live impacts them and act on what we have learned to improve their health.

It is the humanities that taught me how to ask the right questions to realize that a patient with heart failure stopped taking his medications because he didn’t understand their purpose. It is the humanities that make me pause to ask whether my patient with diabetes can afford their insulin because knowing the diagnosis and treatment are not enough if I don’t also consider their social context.

It is the humanities that help me sit with the daughter of a dying patient, ask her about her mother’s life and values and help her consider hospice to support these values. It is even the humanities that I turn to for my own solace after these hard conversations. While the sciences make a competent physician, it is the humanities that make a compassionate caregiver.

Ceasing to fund distinguished professorships in the humanities detracts from the education of every student at Carolina. We must continue to reward and attract excellent scholars in the humanities because it is their work that grapples with what makes us human. We must value the work of humanities educators because their teachings underlie the success of STEM and humanities majors alike. To be clear, the humanities must not be relegated to the position of supplementing a STEM education.

They hold the power to stand on their own in creating thoughtful lifelong learners. A true liberal arts education ensures that every student who graduates from UNC — whether they become a researcher or a lawyer, a doctor or a poet — learns to think for themselves, question their surroundings and maybe even create something beautiful. All UNC students deserve this expansive education, and we must support those with the expertise to provide it.

- Emily S. Long, M.A., UNC School of Medicine, class of 2024

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