Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaching and Doctoring--Two Kinds of Ministry

My mom is now undergoing treatment for breast cancer, so I've been thinking a lot about medical care, about how medical care is becoming more and more standardized, impersonal, mechanical, algorithmic.  For cancer care, this is probably largely a good idea--and a lot of people are pushing education in the same directions that medicine has been taking--greater standardization, increased central planning, attempts to be "data-driven" or "research-based."  I wonder whether that's as good an idea in education as it is in medicine.  I also wonder whether it might be useful to compare teaching and doctoring in other ways as well.

Except for the obvious difference--how much we're paid--doctors and teachers actually have a lot in common.  A friend tells me that when she was deciding what to do with her life she only really considered two options: being a High School English teacher or going to medical school.  She opted for med school, and now she's an OB/GYN.  We teachers and doctors are some of the few people outside of the pages of the New York Times who still get called by our last names and an honorific.  Teachers and doctors both serve essential societal functions, and both are  central to debates about the role of governments and of private enterprise.  Both are huge parts of the economy.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics actually lumps "education and health services" together into one category, by far the largest (23% of total US workers are in education or health, as contrasted with 10% in manufacturing, 14% in wholesale and retail trade, and 2% in agriculture).  Teachers and doctors are also both significant authority figures in nearly all Americans' individual lives; the only comparable figure is the pastor.  Another friend tells me that she knows a number of former teachers who are now nurses, and that one of them told her it was a natural shift, since both were forms of ministry.

Ministry is a good word for it, and pastors, like doctors and teachers, often face burn-out, are often overwhelmed by the human flood they are constantly inundated by--but pastors are (pace Philip Larkin and his long coats) in a different sphere.  Nietszche says something like, "Away with physicians--we need a savior!"  He's right.  Teachers and doctors can't be saviors; we're just people, and it's only teachers and doctors who are caught between the technical and human, the tension between treating the patient and treating the person.

Over the next few months, I want to think a little more closely about some of the parallels between medicine and teaching, between health and education.  I'd like to think about standardized care/pedagogy vs. personalized care/pedagogy.  I'd like to think about the way the federal government is involved, or not involved, in health care and in education.  What else?  I know there are other parallels...  But I'll start, later this week, by considering the difference between medicine and public health--and whether there might be an analogous distinction in education.


  1. I've often thought about this parallel and I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it.

  2. I love thinking about teaching as a kind of ministry and I like this parallel