The Value of an Apprenticeship

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The importance of being an apprentice has not been lost in China. Every good doctor is a teacher and they are followed by as many students as can fit in a tiny examination room.

We have lost that a bit in our education system, even our Chinese medicine education. We trust in the institutions, the classes, and the teachings, all of which are brim full with a wealth of information. But to watch day in and day out as the master works their craft, that’s something I believe has lost seminal importance.

In China, students declare this profession at the age of 18. They have to choose and when they do, they begin an eight year program. Throughout school, students apprentice with different doctors. You know who the best doctors are at a hospital by how many students they have around. I followed one doctor with a WeChat group of over 200 students to coordinate days to watch him treat. In an afternoon he’d treat about 100 patients. While observing him, I was awe struck by the pace and the assured diagnosis after just 3 minutes. I asked my Chinese friend when she knew how to keep up, she thought about it and said, probably after year three. Year three! She was in year eight as a student at the age of 26 and almost ready to graduate.

There have been beyond numerous translations of Chinese medicine to English and into our understanding of health and what options exist. In the US, we’ve translated the medicine into a sophisticated four year program with clinic hours, into four national examinations, into a governing body, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and into every state with it’s own set of regulations. There’s a high standard to bring this medicine into our lives and psyches and I’m immensely grateful. However, there is always the lost in translation phenomenon that is natural to this process and in mass migration of knowledge and culture. Even as China has gone through it’s own modernization of Chinese medicine, bringing it from purely apprenticeships within families into schools and hospitals, the original transmission through apprenticeship is still known as the best form of learning.