Where should I go to Chinese Medicine school?

Questions I receive with a great deal of frequency are “Where should I go to Chinese medicine school?”, “What is the best Chinese Medicine School?” and “Can you recommend a Chinese medicine school?”

I personally believe that the education required and subsequent license earned are cover charges that must be paid before one can go more deeply into the medicine. Becoming licensed is absolutely imperative, and the foundation knowledge gained in even the least inspired program is critical when finally finding an opportunity for real learning. Contrary to popular belief, no experienced practitioner wants to take on a student who is a blank slate. A blank slate means there is no proof of commitment and no guarantee the student will remain in this medicine. Experienced practitioners simply do not have the time to gamble on someone who claims they want to practice this medicine but disdains the current paradigm. However, if someone has gone through the effort of obtaining a degree; made great efforts to educate themselves during their program and through all of this remained positive and not cynical despite what everyone who has gone through the system is aware of is worth considering as a student. This is known as 孺子可教 ‘Ru Zi Ke Jiao’ in Chinese, which refers to a story of a young man who remains helpful despite repeated attempts to bring out his frustration or anger.

School in the current paradigm of Chinese medicine in the United States, Europe or China is often a frustrating and anger creating experience. The quality of the education of Chinese medicine in the United States is greatly affected by those who came to the profession thirty years ago and the priorities of those people over these past thirty years. Some have made great attempts to create a unique educational experience but are hampered by the course requirements they are forced to include to be a licensed institution; others are focused on the very lucrative income a school which offers student financial aid can make. The former also often have difficulty finding gifted teachers at the prices they can afford to pay; the latter actively seek to hire faculty who are only too happy for wages due to the lack of patients in their own clinical practice. Both of these situations have been shaped by governing bodies and regulatory commissions more concerned with how the outside public views and accepts Chinese medicine and safety concerns more than the actual training given inside the field.

Studying in China is a more and more common choice for dedicated students. Having lived in China my entire adult life and watched westerners come and go, I cannot say that an education had here is any better than an education in the west. A student who continues actively striving to immerse themselves in the medicine here despite the physical and emotional trials life in China bring will certainly be further ahead than their contemporaries back home; but most either do not show that initiative or have it ground out of them by the difficulties in China, leaving with less than they may have found at home despite having a better resume on paper. But if a student can remain positive, sidestep the western medical brainwashing that is part of the medicine, avoid being arrogant for having been in China, and made a concerted effort to learn to read, write and speak Chinese fluently, the higher cover charge this country requires does equate to a better learning platform down the road. But a degree earned still only represents the right to begin learning, not proof of skill already obtained. East or West, the sooner this is realized and accepted, the closer one is to孺子可教 ‘Ru Zi Ke Jiao’ when the time does come or the opportunity presents itself.

With that said, I would first weigh whether any school I was considering was for profit or not for profit, and then weigh that with the following: does the college have well respected faculty members on permanent staff? Do they go to efforts to bring in and host a variety of influential practitioners of our time? Are the staff & lecturers licensed practitioners with significant clinical experience? How busy is the student clinic? To enroll in a school without having gone to many treatments in their clinic to see the style of practice while chatting up the students on how they like the program shows little commitment by the individual in question. Should none of these turn up an obvious location, then I would paradoxically choose the least rigorous or least expensive college, using the extra-curricular time and extra income afforded to create a self education outside of the school. As I first said, there is no perfect school, so it is up to the individual to weigh the pros and cons, think out of the box and create the best initial possible learning experience during those 3-4 student years while remaining positive about what they are learning in class. Sadly, many students seem passive about their learning, thinking they deserve to be fed knowledge sitting in a classroom instead of actively striving to immerse themselves in the medicine through all means possible. School and licensing is only the beginning. It is a cover charge paid to actually begin learning medicine.

All of this is of course just my personal opinion. It is not based on any research done, nor do I care to do that research and learn about every institution. But as a life long student of this medicine, I have experienced a bit of everything I have just mentioned–I learned in mentor relationships with old practitioners, spending years proving I was worth teaching before actually being taught anything substance. I flew back and forth between China and a college in the United States for 3 years to obtain my MSOM and licensure and created an irreplaceable educational experience for myself despite having been in the field longer than every faculty member at the college except for one. I have interned in the most famous hospitals in Beijing for years, seeing the course this medicine has officially taken that is so different from the education I obtained in the very same city. I am currently finishing a doctoral program in Hangzhou, creating a wonderful experience while those around me complain of the quality of the education offered. As a seminar organizer and presenter, I have visited no small amount of schools over the past 20 years, interfacing with their administrations, teachers, graduates and students. So while it is only opinion, it is based on quite a bit of exposure. Alas, there is no one college I can recommend.

This is not a vocation to be chosen at a Career Fair, but a calling to help the sick and care for the suffering. The vocation requires dedication to study, dedication to personal cultivation and dedication to the patients we treat. A path like that can only begin with dedicated study, a choice that should not be taken lightly.

Andrew Nugent-Head
November 12th, 2013