What Really Matters

Forty-nine years ago, with a smile on my face and all my music in me, I graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in history and an admission to Stanford Medical School. What turned out to be for me even more availing was that from 1960 through 1962 I had participated in a Special Program in the Humanities. This small, experimental program brought together under 20 undergraduates and an almost equal number of full professors. Each semester we took part in an interdisciplinary seminar that examined a shared theme from multiple perspectives.

My first semester in the program proved to be the single most influential intellectual experience I have had in a long career devoted to academic questions in the borderland between the humanities and biomedicine. The subject was Europe 1905, and with the guidance of experts in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, we examined events of the time in physics, medicine, art history, music, architecture, politics, economics, everyday popular culture, and social life through primary sources. It was a most extraordinary experience: mind expanding and centered on what really mattered in the world at a particular time and in a particular place. Our conversations in seminar were intended to recreate the uncertainties, dangers, and prospects that the past held for those who had lived through it. These discussions shaped my sensibility to such an extent that my own career, which explored the lived experience between medicine and anthropology, became more or less a footnote to this model of the best kind of interdisciplinarity. This, among other models of how to practice the life of the mind, motivates me as a teacher and scholar to this day.

I have tried to bring the sheer excitement, deep seriousness, and liberating promise of this approach to my students and research collaborators at Harvard over 35 years. At times, I felt I had succeeded in sharing this sensibility to the inseparability of cultural, aesthetic, scientific, and ethical questions; and at times, I felt disappointed by the inadequacy of my skills in pursuing this goal.

But whether I succeeded or failed in realizing my ideal, what Harvard offered me and my students is the empowering sense that we could together aspire to excellence in an intellectual and, I now also believe, moral quest to build a structure of enquiry that models how a life of the mind could be lived not just for each of us as individuals but in our thoroughly intersubjective local worlds as friends, family members, and colleagues.

I hope many of you who commence today have had experiences—albeit the model of enquiry may be distinctive—not so different from mine. I now see this educational opportunity as a great gift that over such a long journey of living keeps the mind alive and the spirit optimistic. It is a tonic that prevents cynicism, no matter how disappointing at times our circumstances and conditions become.


I know this personally from caring for my late wife, Joan Kleinman, during her almost decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. For me, an aesthetic and ethical framework for making sense of things and trying to shape an enabling human response to the dangers that the cold, fateful indifference of nature brings our way, is evidence that education is both for our own paedeia and cultivation of the self, but ultimately, also for our responsibilities for caregiving for those we love, for those we teach, and for those we live amongst in our troubling yet wondrous world. Self-fashioning and caregiving are our tasks. Creating a method of continuously and intensively educating ourselves over the life course is for knowledge, but also for wisdom, beauty, goodness and above all, as Joan taught me over nearly 46 years of marriage, love.

Arthur M. Kleinman is a professor of anthropology at Harvard College and professor of social medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.