A (sea) sponge that, incidentally, looks like a brain

A (sea) sponge that, incidentally, looks like a brain

A visitor to this blog might be quick to conclude that, given the ratio of fun:seriousness on this blog, Allan and I do nothing but travel, explore London, and stuff our faces. That could not be farther from the truth (okay, it was far from the truth this past week – more on that in a future post); the blog’s contents are just unrepresentative because I tend to think that school is less interesting for you to read about. But we’re both right back in to the swing of classes and nerdier than ever. I think of our brains as sponges, soaking up as much as we can for the short time that we are privileged to be students at some of the most outstanding institutions in the U.K. of their kind.

Allan is writing a draft of an essay that isn’t due until the end of this term and is wrestling with a few proposals for his summer dissertation. Meanwhile, I’m my usual non-committal, multi-disciplinary, refuse-to-be-put-in-a-box self; I’ve been fretting endlessly (literally, there has not been an end to my agony) over my course choices, worrying about what I want to know, what I need to know, and what will be helpful to know in the future. These past few weeks I’ve been running frantically between my two universities, sitting in on many hours of lectures for classes that I’m not even registered for. I’m in a master’s program that tries to combine elements of traditional public health subjects with topics on health economics and financing, and while I think the idea is that many students gravitate towards one or the other, I stubbornly (and foolishly) refuse to choose, awkwardly trying to straddle both subject areas as the courses become more specific and thus more disparate.

And then I take a step back and think that if I really wanted to learn something that would help me make a difference in the world I should have undertaken a completely different program, like master’s of international affairs. The more I understand what it means to influence and implement national and foreign policy, the more I realize that there is a whole other body of knowledge that needs to be learned alongside. So much of what happens in the world depends on understanding political processes – and not just the politics of governments, but more broadly the understanding of who has power, how they got it and keep it, who are the winners and losers, and who decides.

I once heard James Orbinski say (and I’m paraphrasing here) something along the lines of doctors  being ‘remarkably ignorant’ about the world, and our technical expertise being useless unless we understand the political context in which we want to use it. I think he was speaking specifically about low income countries but I think this applies equally to high income areas. And it’s true – there is a lot that goes on in the world that I don’t know about, but that I need to. Consider the following exchange in one of my seminars:

Classmate 1: To understand why medical savings accounts should fail to provide a plausible way for a population to access health care, one need only consider the example of Zimbabwe.*

Classmate 2 (Chuckling):  Yes, but what about Botswana? I would open a bank account there.

Classmate 1: Yes, Botswana. I as well. Touché. We are so very erudite.

classmate 2: Indubitably

Fortunately, it mildly enrages my over-achieving self when people speak of things of which I have no clue (though, really, I think I would be in bigger trouble if I paid this much in tuition and was only hearing things I already knew), which provides an impetus for me to learn. So I can’t help but wonder if I would have gotten more value out of this year if instead of going to classes I spent my days reading the newspaper cover-to-cover.


*Actually, I did understand this example. When I was in Zambia during the summer of 2008 doing a research project, I took a weekend trip to Victoria Falls and crossed the bridge into Zimbabwe, where it was all the rage to buy a ten million dollar bill (see also this and this).