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Medical students give conservatives hope for the future

Those of us oriented to a more conservative perspective are failing on a number of levels, not least of which is our failure to be optimistic about the future.

Of course, there are many reasons not to be – reasons which are well articulated by this publication.

However, by failing to make a positive case against the changes we see, not only do we make our arguments unappealing to those who are undecided, but we also strengthen an opposition.

As we grumble, our complaints take on the aspect of resigned and curmudgeonly anachronisms of people who don’t believe we can win. Indeed, much of the time we pave the way for the opposition by making it seem like changes in a ‘progressive’ direction are inevitable.

First amongst my causes for optimism are medical students. As much as we are led to believe that universities are bastions of Woke-ism (however we choose to define it), I have been surprised by the contrary. The medical students we encounter are not only enthusiastic, motivated, and intelligent, but, for the most part, truly open-minded.

Within their sphere of medical expertise, this bodes well. For we all know that specialists can have wildly opposing opinions on matters which have an equivocal evidence base – held with convictions disproportionate to any proven efficacy. As students, having open-mindedness and introspection about these differences is setting them up for success in later life. Furthermore, students seem able to extrapolate this principle beyond the realm of clinical practice, and into the fields of medical theory, and contemporary political issues.

As people in authority, the antidote to those lecturers who would seek to indoctrinate students with their own ideology is sure to encourage students to interrogate any idea they encounter. Our job should never be to make students think like we do, but rather to help them open their minds. There is a real zest for this, with many of the current demands made to their faculties of reason being contrary to each other.

There appears to be a real backlash among students against some of the dogmas being thrust upon them. While they may not feel able to challenge those in authority, they know that sometimes the emperor has no clothes.

I will not name specifics, but many students feel unease at some of the modern shibboleths that parade through society, brazenly assaulting our experience of the world.

Through university, they have learned to keep their mouths shut and to parrot dogma that is told to them by politically partisan professors. However, if you provide the space for them to talk freely, a room full of diverse and interesting opinions appear, each with nuanced perspectives and experiences in which we should reveal.

By asking students what they think of certain ideas and policies, and providing a foil for them to debate against, you see myriad different perspectives.

These are people filled with compassion, ambition, and an openness which should make us reflect on our prejudices. As doctors, many of us have formed our views and use current events to confirm our biases. It is with the students that one is able to have open-ended discussions about fascinating topics, and ones that make us challenge our assumptions.

In another domain, I am also struck by the fact that many students do not want ‘safety’ to govern their lives. Instead, many of them want to be put outside of their comfort zone, and when they are given structure to do so, not only do they flourish but relish the opportunity. Intuitively most of them recognize that only by pushing themselves will they improve as doctors, and as people.

Again, this is contrary to prevailing societal narratives.

In the context of Covid, many of these students feel acutely what they have lost, not just in terms of life experience, but also of their medical education. I cannot speak for all of them, but – having been shut out of hospitals for two years – many feel like they want to be part of the workforce, they want to help, and they want to risk themselves to help others, especially in a time of crisis. This is a reaction to government edicts that have shuttered them away from their lives and opportunities, all in the name of ‘safety’. Safety for the students themselves, but mostly it’s safety for leaders to insulate themselves against criticism.

Even better news is that the students are from hugely diverse backgrounds. Many (if not most) are from families of recent immigration to Australia, particularly from Asia. They are men, women, gay, straight, and many more divisions besides. It is testimony to the fact that people of all backgrounds can not only succeed on their own merits in medicine, but that in doing so they can see through some of the politics which are projected onto them.

We should take solace in those who come after us, for they are not all dogmatic and self-interested activists. Our job should perhaps be to encourage their open-mindedness and ability to interrogate the world. And for what it’s worth, it seems that in this respect, immigration to Australia continues to be a hugely positive part of the national narrative and one which we should celebrate.

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