liberal arts idealism and my MPH

I’m sitting in probably my least favorite class of the semester (which is saying a lot since I don’t particularly look forward to ANY of my classes), and after going to a “departmental concerns” meeting right before this class started, and hearing the results of a feedback survey for another class on Monday, I’ve really started contemplating models of education.

I went to a public high school then a private liberal arts institution and am currently working on a masters in public health at another private (grossly overpriced) institution. Can’t really see what my money is going to, but transferring would be an even bigger pain in the ass since the degree is only 1.5 – 2 years long and moving to another state would cost more money than I have.

I really hate the structure of these classes, and they’re all pretty much structured identically: 1.25 – 2.5 hour classes, power point slides, and someone talking AT you. There are no discussions and there are barely any questions asked at all except polling questions that just require you to raise a hand if you choose answer 1, 2, etc. There is no critical analysis of any public health questions, hell, there are very few questions asked in order to think critically about. Synthesis of information is not required, just regurgitate what they told you to do—much like high school. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time to scantrons, FCATs, and DBQs.

This brings me to what our department chair said today in the meeting: that an MPH is basically a license to work. So it’s not really about an ability to think about these issues, which I guess are reserved for the doctoral level only, but just about whether you can go through the motions and follow directions as listed out. I mean you REALLY have to follow directions, even if you think a more creative approach may be better. If you think outside the box, come up with something more creative, you actually lose points.

This has been my struggle throughout grad school. In undergrad, they point us in a direction and we have to come up with something and we’re graded based on our ability to innovate, come up with new questions and new ways of answering them. Here they give you a model and they just want you to show that you’re able to reproduce that model exactly as they’ve told you to (although many times they’re such poor instruction givers that it’s not even clear what exactly they want you to do).

It’s intolerable. Once you’ve been taught how to think, critically analyze, deconstruct topics, go in depth while still maintaining a certain level of breadth, you can’t go back to these high-school-like ways of operating in education. Meaningless group (busy) work, and surface level mentions of topics that are key to certain aspects of the field of public health, just ain’t cutting it! It’s especially insulting because I chose the “global community health and behavioral sciences” department, not a department that deals mostly with numbers or statistics (epidemiology/biostats) managing system, or tropical diseases.

I assumed (erroneously) that a department that focuses on community health and behavioral sciences would truly be devoted to something more than just behavioral theoretical models, how to organize in the community (from a structural element), or different aspects of programming (getting grants, developing programs, evaluating, etc).

I thought that the history and psychology underlying the behavior would be part of the discussion too. That if we were really going to talk about health disparities and cultural competence we would actually talk about it as opposed to these brief, oversimplified sound bites, and ridiculously short lecture time devoted to these topics. For example, today our two power point presentations were supposed to go over how to write a budget for a program (which is also part of our big group assignment due on Sunday), and then cultural competence. The budget lecture is 19 slides long and he has taken 2 hours to go over it. The cultural competence lecture is a whopping 4 SLIDES long and he’ll probably breeze through it in the next 15 minutes and end class early. And actually only the first two (of the four) talk about cultural competence and really don’t address issues of cultural competence. Rather they just list programmatic and evaluation steps for doing an intervention that I guess if followed should demonstrate the competence of the program??? But how can it if none of the steps say: learn a little bit of the history of the population your going into; learn about their culture and values and norms; ask yourself if there are politics of oppression involved historically and institutionally; think about your own background and positioning in society in comparison to the population your working with-look at the similarities and differences-and evaluate what challenges your person and your presence may bring in trying to design an intervention.

But I guess this is just my idealistic liberal arts education coming out in a real world “licensure” degree that doesn’t feel the necessity of this type of analysis, even though I see it as INTEGRAL to the field of public health that focuses on the health of populations. When our population has such gross disparities along racial/ethnic/class lines, where most of our interventions are going to be targeted to racial minorities and low-income populations, how can we not afford to take the time to do this analysis? This method of instruction and content of courses—modeled off the principle of creating licensed professionals capable of carrying out functions—only adds to the problem if these licensed professionals go out into the field mindlessly carrying out functions. We’re only reinforcing institutionalized problems that have contributed to health disparities if we’re operating in a way that oversimplifies, understates, or completely ignores the history and current effects of institutionalized racism, classism, (other isms). How do you make changes to policy to benefit living, breathing, people, if you don’t know who these living, breathing, people are and how they got to this point?

Maybe I’m just being naive in thinking this degree should be more than a meal ticket…but I want more.