Les langues vivaces” at the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Lille 2

Examination Hall Lille 2

A guest post by Leonard Muellner

In October of 2016, I had the pleasure of talking about Homeric poetry to the largest audience I have ever addressed in the many years I’ve spent teaching Classics—over 500 students in a huge new amphitheater at the University of Lille in northeastern France. The Faculty of Medicine at the University of Lille is part of an emphatically public system, supported by tax dollars and open to all without huge fees for tuition. American pre-med students, who have to compete for admission with grade point averages, recommendations, examinations, and interviews in order to achieve their dream of being “accepted” at medical school and who often get the privilege of a huge bank debt to go with acceptance, would be shocked at the way admission to medical school works in France. There are no hurdles to admission: the hard part is not “getting into medical school,” but passing the regular and strenuous examinations that it takes to stay there and get a degree. Even students’ lodging is subsidized by the state.

As the top-rated medical school in the system, the University of Lille 2 has had to expand its physical plant in order to accommodate beginning classes of over a thousand students. But the expansion has not been at the expense of innovation in the curriculum for these students—on the contrary.  A decade or more ago, Antoine Drizenko, professor of anatomy, in concert with the Dean of the Medical School, Didier Gosset, began to introduce modifications in the way that they teach their subjects. These two scientists, who are also deeply engaged humanists, have succeeded in introducing the study of what Professor Drizenko calls “les langues vivaces”, roughly speaking “the indestructible languages,” into the medical curriculum.

The indestructible languages are Ancient Greek and Latin, and they have introduced them not simply to teach people dry subjects like the roots of Greek and Latin words so that they can understand and learn scientific terminology more easily. It’s become clear to many in France that the several Faculties of Medicine may do a good job teaching their students the scientific and technical aspects of modern medicine, but that students’ aptitude for interacting with patients as human beings has not been similarly nurtured. As a response, Drizenko and Gosset have been incorporating the study of Classics—the languages themselves, the history of ancient medicine, the study of both scientific literature and also of Homeric poetry, into the curriculum for medical students.

The University of Lille has not done this in a haphazard way. They may be the only medical faculty in the world—and they are working to make it possible for others to follow their example — with a tenured professor of Greek and Latin philology, a first rate palaeographer as well as a wonderful teacher, in the person of Myriam Hecquet. Hecquet, who was a fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in 2001, and Drizenko, who is a superb musician as well as a professor of anatomy, teach classes in Greek and Latin and offer students the opportunity to read treatises by the Greek physician, Galen, in the original, even teaching them to read his work in the medieval manuscripts that have come down to us. Such courses are electives, but all the first and second year students must read selections of Homeric poetry and attend lectures on it by Drizenko and Hecquet. Drizenko has self-published a remarkable textbook for them that contains selections from the Greek text of Homer, with a running Latin translation, since many students come to the University with some Latin, while fewer have had Greek; the students also buy the modern translation of the Iliad by Philippe Brunet. In addition to giving a guest lecture to the second-year students that was taped, I spent an hour or two with Drizenko and Hecquet asking me fun questions about Homeric poetry in a high-end video studio on campus, so that they can edit and extract clips as they wish, hopefully to stimulate discussion in their classes. By the way, the talk that I gave was about the healer/warrior Mākhāon (whose name contains the root of the word μῆχος ‘cure’) and why his wounding in Iliad 11.597–615 is the turning point of the poem, the moment when Achilles sends out Patroklos to ascertain who he is, and what an understanding of that question reveals about Achilles as a hero. I hope I helped them to understand him, but I was sure of one thing when I left: I had benefited myself by the time I had spent with some real modern heroes, the amazing people who invited me—Hecquet, Drizenko, and Gosset.

Leonard Muellner