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Securing America’s Future:

The Power of Liberal Arts Education

Thomas G. Keens

Professor of Pediatrics, University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine
St. John’s College (NM), Class of 1968
Thomas G. Keens is a professor of pediatrics, physiology, and biophysics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, and a pediatric pulmonologist at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). He received his undergraduate liberal arts education at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, graduating in 1968. He received his medical degree at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine in 1972. Keens completed a pediatric internship and residency at the CHLA in 1975 and then a fellowship in pediatric respiratory physiology at the Research Institute of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1977.

His research interests are varied, but focus on developmental respiratory physiology in children, specifically sudden infant death syndrome, chronic respiratory failure and home mechanical ventilation, congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, exercise in children with lung diseases, and cystic fibrosis. For 24 years, he chaired the CHLA Institutional Review Board, which examines the ethics of human research studies. Keens is the 1992 recipient of the Daniel E. Boatwright Award for “extraordinary service on behalf of Californian’s touched by SIDS.” He is married to Susan E. Keens, PhD in clinical psychology, and has two children, Jenny Keens Franz and Peter Keens.
I came from a blue collar town, and I didn’t attend a “college preparatory high school.”  Within the walls of my public high school, I learned to interact with students of all socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, which were valuable lessons later in life. When I applied to St. John’s College, my college counselor refused to send my high school transcripts because she thought the college was too weird and that I should not go there.
 
St. John’s College was weird. It had a Great Books curriculum and no majors. Everyone took the same four-year course: two years of ancient Greek, two years of French, four years of mathematics, four years of laboratory sciences, one year of music theory, and four years of Seminar, where students confront the greatest thinkers of Western civilization. In high school, I loved studying, but I was enamored with mathematics and science. I thought all truths revolved around scientific discovery, and I had little patience or knowledge of literature, philosophy, or history. I had a wise English teacher, however, who convinced me that I was maybe just a bit too narrow-minded.  Knowing that I was going into science (at the time I thought theoretical astrophysics), she suggested that I could “take four years off” to expand my horizons and learn from the greatest thinkers of all time. There was no better path for an impulsive high school student than to enroll in an enforced Renaissance curriculum, no options out.

My training in medical school, residency, and fellowship provided the knowledge, but my liberal arts education provided the basis, the fundamentals for learning. “Active learning” has only recently come into the vocabulary of medical education. As a liberal arts graduate, I participated in “active learning” from the first day I stepped onto my college campus.

For me, St. John’s College was an exhilarating, monastic experience.  We lived in a community of scholars on a mountain southeast of Santa Fe. We all studied the same things. We could all talk about the same things. We could argue, debate, discuss, and share revelations about the same eternal truths. The liberal arts education was demanding, and it culminated in a senior thesis, which was defined as “a sustained performance in the liberal arts.” Following a public oral examination on your thesis, which you defended in front of friends and enemies, you emerged knowing that you had mastered, at some level, critical thinking. This is not something that I could have done before college, but I could do it after a four-year liberal arts education.
 
Subsequently, I pursued a career in medicine. I successfully completed medical school, a pediatric internship and residency, and a fellowship in pediatric respiratory physiology. I believe the critical thinking skills that I learned at St. John’s College allowed me to become one of the pioneers of pediatric respiratory physiology and helped launch this new area of knowledge.  Discovering new knowledge in this area where few others ventured has been a great adventure. I have participated in defining the knowledge base for the new subspecialty of pediatric pulmonology, and I have been instrumental in performing research and in training those pediatric pulmonologists who will continue to advance our field in the future.
 
Where did I learn these skills? My training in medical school, residency, and fellowship provided the knowledge, but my liberal arts education provided the basis, the fundamentals for learning. “Active learning” has only recently come into the vocabulary of medical education. As a liberal arts graduate, I participated in “active learning” from the first day I stepped onto my college campus. Critical thinking is the most important skill one can use to treat patients, to train medical students, to decide on the important research questions, and decide how to answer them.
 
I have achieved more than I ever dreamed I would because of my liberal arts education.
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