My wife complains that when she asks me a simple question, I give her a complicated answer. Hence the phrase: “five-cent question, ten-dollar answer.”
I remind her that it could be worse: professors are conditioned to lecture for a 50-minute period!
Admittedly, some aspects of life do not require a detailed answer. “Do I wear a coat today?” is a simple yes-no question that depends on a few-seconds check of the weather. If only all the questions we faced in life were so simple.
When immigrants came through the port at Ellis Island and stood for inspection, the decision was easy when a person presented symptoms of a deep cough and sunken chest. “Consumption” was the diagnosis and they had to turn around and return to Europe. Today, our knowledge of lung diseases is far more extensive than “consumption.” Tuberculosis, emphysema, viral pneumonia, bacterial pneumonia, black lung, and a wide variety of lung cancers have replaced “consumption,” a term no longer used because it is now meaningless.
These refined definitions drastically change how we treat others, for while tuberculosis was infectious and transferable, thus providing a reason for excluding immigrants at that early time, the cancers are not communicable and pose no danger to others.
Notice that one generalized word “consumption” was replaced by a large number of precisely-defined words. And the meaning of those new words also relied on a more modern understanding of viruses and bacteria and malignant tumors.
Our understanding of the world is therefore more complicated today — and that is a good thing too! But not only is the size of a modern dictionary much larger than it was in the 1800s, it will take longer to learn the meanings of these better-defined words important to our everyday life.
And so it is in the training of medical doctors. In the late 1700s, there was a famous doctor William Beaumont who you may remember from biology class. He was the first to dangle food into the stomach of a fur trapper. Beaumont’s discoveries have made him the “father of gastrology (stomach science)” and yet he never attended college. He trained as an apprentice under an older doctor. Medicine was simple.
Move to the Civil War and look at the credentials of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln: two years of college. I had fun telling my college sophomores in biology class that at the end of the year, they could be a medical doctor — in the 1850s!
Today, of course, physician training takes the full baccalaureate degree and then medical school and an internship or more, depending on specialty. And as our medical knowledge grows, even more training will be necessary to understand this increasing knowledge base.
Futurists proclaim that we can side-step this increased need for learning by simply putting our brain on our belts, or in our purses. It is true that for trivial and simple factual questions such as “Who was the first person to step on the moon?,” our smartphone can retrieve the answer: Neil Armstrong. But my students rapidly discover that without the advanced vocabulary, they can neither ask the detailed question they need to ask, nor understand the detailed answer they get.
My mother received a two-year college education in the mid-1900s. But as I went off to school, she kept close tabs on my homework and what I was learning in class. She finally told me when I was in middle school that I was now studying about things she had not studied. It was not that I was smarter, but that the world was becoming more complicated. And many historians have reflect on how, if a Greek Aristotle or Italian Leonardo da Vinci could be brought forward in time to the schools of today, they would be amazed at the knowledge that is now available to our children. They would appreciate that what they understood as “consumption” was now so much better understood as so many unique ailments.
Unfortunately, teachers no longer hear their students convey parental awe and appreciation for advancement in knowledge. Indeed a large number of Americans feel higher education is a negative in today’s world. They are happy to settle for five-cent answers to their five-cent questions.
John Richard Schrock is a distinguished professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org