The Poets & the Generals: What They Knew About Professional Formation

 In Education

David J. Schleich, PhD


When Napoleon and the Emperor of Russia met on horseback after a great battle just north of Moscow, the Emperor offered him a popular but bitter-tasting Russian ale as a gesture of good will during the temporary truce. In a matter of days Napoleon would be ensconced in the Kremlin but with the city empty around him. In this moment, however, Napoleon returned the greeting, and aware of his tall adversary, stayed on his horse even after the Russian has dismounted. He fell silent for a time before speaking. Napoleon’s supply lines were dwindling and winter was settling in. Most of Russia’s cities had already been ravaged by his war-weary troops. These same French conquerors had grown nervous, accustomed as they were to lightning success with new technology and fierce ambition. In any case, now the great leaders of the 2 armies were face to face overlooking a fertile valley, well above the blood and roar of the battle below, drinking beer. As he imbibed, Napoleon knew that around him the Russians were withdrawing to the Urals, leaving the French to occupy an empty city that the Russians would render inhospitable via scorched earth, fouled water, and poisoned food. The retreating Russians would, in the following early weeks of the grueling Russian winter, gradually surround the French invaders.

Napoleon’s wars and his civil revolutions across Europe had changed the very fabric of that continent’s civilization. The Emperor of Russia knew and feared these waves from the west. Yet, that same Russian warlord also knew that Napoleon was at a crossroads. Napoleon finally spoke: “And now what shall we become this winter, you and I?” To which the Russian, uncomfortable having to look up at his proud adversary, said, “We can, neither of us, go home yet, Napoleon, for many men have yet to die on this frozen ground.” Napoleon replied, “I know this to be true, and it saddens the heart of France and the soul of Russia that it is so.” What happened in the next 6 weeks changed the course of history.

Guarding the Gates

In terms of its medical education platforms and processes, the naturopathic profession has also come to a crossroads. Although decidedly less dramatic and lethal, it’s not entirely different. I know that my analogy is stretched, but we are not unlike those Russians, steeped in our traditions, comfortable in our safe distances from the rapidly encroaching transformations to the primary healthcare landscape of these past 2 decades. But those transformations have made our detractors and rivals hungry, and they want to assail the walls of our city of Natural Medicine, adding the spoils to the biomedicine empire they have carved for the last 12 decades, especially since the days when Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Michigan changed the paradigm of medical education in North America and, some years later, Flexner reported on how it was going.

What has brought them to our city gates? We have been hearing about their coming, and we must decide how and if we shall drive them back. They are making it necessary that we ask fundamental questions for the future. Do we embrace the storms which accompany integration while at the same time preserving the very core of naturopathic medicine, philosophy, and practice? Are we to fear these pretenders to the city of natural healthcare? The consortium of “integrative medicine” faculties and institutions is a very big foot in a big, big door. But if they take over the city of natural medicine, can they endure the winter ahead for them? Because their paradigm is so patently different, it is unlikely. Everything will change – intruders and the invaded.

Lessons from the Generals & Poets

Our educational leaders can find some comforting ideas in the face of such a wholesale threat to our traditions by taking a look at some of the great stories of transformation and leadership. Consider, for example, Kurosawa’s classic film, Ran, in which an historically powerful warlord attempts to pass on his wisdom and authority as he ages, exactly at a time when pretenders and new lords with gleaming weapons appear in the valley, eager to pillage its riches. Ran chooses a successor to “keep the battle red with the blood of our wisdom and knowledge” on the basis of what he feared rather than by seeing well past the confusion of the battle before him. Ran’s dilemma was that this battle was going to be fierce, like battles from long ago. Ran and  Napoleon were both seeking a new strategy, a new paradigm for action in a very different world than they had heretofore known. Both knew too late that the old ways of victory would work no longer.

What a dilemma. Western literature is replete with such examples involving the management of unpredictable events in worlds that are changing inexorably fast. Ishmael, in Moby Dick, is consumed in his forlorn quest of an allegorical white whale. His task is to sort out the obsessive, consuming search of his leader, Captain Ahab. The forces in the once-familiar ocean are too strong, and the ship breaks apart. Ahab has to make sense, in that last fatal moment, of unpredictable events and new possibilities for co-existence and inner strength. He knows that had he acted sooner, with a greater understanding of what he was seeking and what the great fish was meant to teach him, neither he nor his men would have perished, and the vast, vast sea and the Great White Whale who was at home in that cacophony, would have been less enemy and more teacher.

Let us also consider Hamlet in this regard. Just as Hamlet was so contemplative, weighing one decision over another and still another over another, becoming frozen in incomplete action, so too the profession faces such a possibility unless it can galvanize its intuitive power and its accumulated wisdom. There is nothing new about the threat of assimilation. Since Flexner, we have had a systematic threat to our philosophy, our well-being, and our very political survival in a culture whose bureaucracies and empiricists do not fully understand us. We desperately need to incorporate – in a systematic rather than an anecdotal or sentimental fashion – the great knowledge of the elders of the profession into the current curriculum and pedagogy of our schools, into our evolving medicine, and into our intentions, so that these truths are not lost but rather become part of the foundation of the walls that protect our city from the true barbarians outside. We need to take that accumulated wisdom and incorporate its savvy into a strategy which not only protects where the profession has come from, but makes us strong in the face of where it needs to go. When the emperors of allopathic and naturopathic medicine meet to consider what lies just ahead, it won’t matter that it’s winter because we are comfortable and safe in our city. It is not our supply lines which will be stretched. We won’t be looking to a long, deadly trek back to Paris in defeat. It’s our city, after all.

An Assured Future

Henry V promised renewal for his troops at Agincourt, but not victory. Similarly, since there is no war if we choose not to fight in that way, so too the future of naturopathic medicine is friendly.  Coordinated strategic effort among our agencies, schools, universities and colleges will keep the walls of the city strong. Just as Henry V, in the process of engaging in a most important historical movement and moment, announced to his tiny, powerful band of supporters that whether the battle was won or lost, renewal and reconstitution of the English was assured, so too will natural medicine colleges and universities bring high-quality graduate medical education framework to the landscape of primary healthcare and medical education in North America. As we all know, Henry prevailed in his great battle with far fewer troops than the perfumed, privileged French monarchy deployed to the battlefield. The French soon felt the power of Henry’s political pioneers. The French, 2 centuries later in Russia, felt the power of patience and right positioning. So too shall the natural medicine professions prevail with its teachers and mentors. It will take setting aside old strategies, beginning with the educational advance guard. Patients know already.

Image Copyright: <a href=’’>mariuszszczygiel / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

David J. Schleich, PhD, is president and CEO of the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM), former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Previous posts have included appointments as vice president academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd), and the University of Toronto (PhD).

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