Paul Shanley MD

Paul Shanley, MD, Professor of pathologyThe following is excerpted from a speech given by Paul Shanley MD at the SUNY Upstate Medical University graduation awards ceremony, May 17, 2008.  Shanley is a professor of  pathology at SUNY Upstate.

There are only two things I can speak of with any authority; one is kidney disease and the other is education. I decided that you probably do not want to hear any more about kidney disease.

So, education then.

It won't come as a surprise to you that I believe fairly passionately in education. It represents what is uniquely human in the human experience and may well be the only enduring solution to most of the problems that we have to face. It is telling that every tyranny takes pains to suppress education and replace it with propaganda.

A good education is a complex thing. It is so often reduced in common discourse and especially political discourse to some accumulation of information or training in specific skills. But a much richer concept of education is that it has to do with initiation into the culture that you inherit. We engage with the best that has been thought or said by those who came before us. The story of how our ideas developed gives us a perspective that is crucial for flexibility in our thinking and for developing judgment in the face of ambiguity. And I am sorry to tell you but ambiguity is going to be your life from here on if it isn't already.

But a good education should also lead to unrest and dissatisfaction. As we pass the heritage on, my generation leaves to you the momentum and promise of informatics and genomics but certainly not a perfect world. There are too many diseases that are not understood well enough for us to be all that helpful. We have not solved fundamental problems of access to care. And to a very disturbing extent, we have commercialized medicine and scientific research to the point of threatening fundamental trust in these institutions, let alone undermining any semblance of traditional ideals.

It would be natural for an ordinary person to think that this is just the way the world is and maybe ask: 'What am I supposed to do about it? It's all I can do to just figure out how to adapt.' But the point is that nothing is a given.  As Leonard Cohen sings in his "Anthem" (Leonard Cohen, way before your time but maybe some of the parents remember): 'forget the perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.'

Education shows how things came to be the way they are. It prods you to ask the good questions that shake up the foundations and point to new possibilities. A good education is what lets you find the crack that lets the light in.

Sue Stearns in anatomy lab

Sue Stearns, PhD, is an associate professor of cell and developmental biology, and one of four faculty members who teach Gross Anatomy to first-year medical students at SUNY Upstate. Students routinely cite this course as a favorite.

Read more about Stearns' take on our Anatomy course's popularity.