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Friday, February 10, 2012


I'm going to begin here by directing my few readers to a better and more widely-read internet writer than myself. This particular writer happens to have the same parents I have.

My brother recently wrote a wonderful piece on The Inclusive about video games. Specifically, he aired his beef (shared by many of us who grew up on the NES, Sega Genesis, and SNES) with the kind of social games on Facebook and the iPhone that he calls "Villes" (think Farmville, Cityville, etc.). The purpose of these games, says my brother, is not be fun or interesting, but to hook players on a progression of increasingly difficult and expensive rewards. The goal in developing these games, he says, is to get a few gullible people so addicted that they're willing to pay real money for benefits that exist only in the imaginary world of the game.

My brother compares these games to B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning chambers:
This is why these games are free, brightly colored, and cute: if they get enough people in the box, some of people will keep hitting the button. If there are time delays constricting how often the button can be pushed, some people will pay for the privilege of hitting the button sooner. Although this sounds like a Dire Metaphor, it is almost literally accurate: pay fifteen in-game-currency units (sold at ten for a real-life dollar) to get the Pig Pen now, rather than waiting to accrue that many units over time.
My brother, mind you, has a much bigger and much more important point to make than his distaste for a particular kind of game; I encourage you to read the piece for yourself. But his grievance against the "Villes" got me thinking (as many things seem to these days) about the way we, as students, practice the martial arts.

I train because I like to. Sure, in the back of my mind, I'm on a years-long hunt for an elusive treasure known as the Black Belt, but that destination wouldn't be worth anything to me if I wasn't enjoying the journey. The martial arts fascinate me; when I'm working my way through a new technique, the next rank is the last thing on my mind.

But if you've ever been to an independent regional taekwondo or karate tournament, you've likely seen a very different attitude from mine about rank. You've seen cadres of "masters" who seem intensely proud of all the ranks and awards prominently displayed on their doboks and gis. You've seen children as young as nine who have already blazed through dozens of ranks to earn their black belts and are eagerly working on the next degree.

My mind is boggled by this kind of thing. In my own discipline of aikido, many instructors are middle-aged men who have yet to move beyond their first dan. Most organizations have only six ranks between zero and black belt, and usually most of those ranks do not have corresponding belt colors. Testing at my club is done only once a year. Rank, in my experience of aikido, is a personal milestone and a tool for designating instructors, nothing more. The art is its own reward--ars gratia artis.

Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone who's not doing rank the aikido way is doing it wrong. If I thought that, I never would have attempted my foray into taekwondo. What bothers me is a tendency I see among some martial arts schools to sell the next rank (for which there will of course be extra fees), rather than an experience, as their primary product, and worse, a tendency among students to buy it.

The last time I went to a taekwondo tournament, I watched black belts compete who could not punch straight or kick above their waists. I watched a red belt compete in a wheelchair--a man who cannot kick is nearing his black belt in an art that is roughly 75% kicking. These peoples' ranks are not indicators of skill; they are rewards for investments of time and money.

There are those who say that awarding ranks so freely makes a mockery of the martial arts. Personally, I couldn't care less about mockery. I put on long, white underwear and play with wooden swords with other grown men three times a week; the truth is already as funny as any mockery that might be made of it. What I do care about is the perception, fueled by people like the aforementioned tournament-goers, that the martial artist's purpose is to accumulate ranks rather than to practice an art.

A martial arts experience shaped by this perception stops being about learning and enjoyment and becomes Karateville, an endless cycle of chasing the next little reward. This is, of course, good news for people trying to cash in on testing fees. It's bad news, though, for all of us who just like the martial arts because they're interesting and fun: we don't want to confine our training to the handful of things on the next test, and we don't want to train with people more concerned about colored pieces of cloth than well-executed technique or a good workout.

Twice before (here and here) I have brought up Rob Redmond, writer of the excellent karate blog 24 Fighting Chickens. Redmond's take on rank is both cynical and iconoclastic. He goes so far in one piece as to suggest that the Karateville game is the only reason to have more than a few broad ranks:
There are not twenty discernible levels of skill in karate. I submit to you that there are probably only four or five. You are giving out ranks to reward attendance, memorization, and good conduct. You are encouraging the payment of fees for tests, belts, and for continuing lessons, but your ranks you give out do not have any real meaning. No one could look at your yellow belts and purple belts and see with their eyes which was the higher rank without you telling them first.
So what's a martial artist to do? Abandon rank altogether? I'm not going to advocate that here, though I do think the question of whether or not we really need rank in the martial arts is an interesting one. For now, I think we can ask some simpler questions of ourselves.

Is my pursuit of rank helping me focus on my training or distracting me from it? How different am I really from a student one rank higher or lower than me? How much recognition do I really need for learning this new technique or form? Is there an obvious purpose behind all the ranks at my school?

Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living. It naturally follows, I think, that the unexamined art is not worth practicing. If we only notice what we are awarded without ever asking questions about what we're really learning, we may be stumbling over the city limits into Karateville.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Waist Deep and Pushing On

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

- Pete Seeger, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"

I may not know much about the martial arts, but I do know a little something about teaching.

In order to teach material, a teacher must first know the material. He must be able to lead students through it, answer questions about it, and find a way to make it relevant to different students with different points of view. A teacher who doesn't know his material simply can't teach.

There is something worse, though, than a teacher who doesn't know his material: a teacher who doesn't know his material and yet insists on moving forward as if he does. These are the teachers students alternatively laugh and grumble about, and peers whisper about behind their backs. These teachers don't just make fools of themselves, they drag their students down with them.

We've all had these teachers at one time or another, and I've always wondered at their motivations. Can the prospect of owning our ignorance really be so daunting that we're willing to humiliate ourselves and inconvenience others instead? In my own experience as an educator, I've found it's much easier and much less painful for everyone (including myself) if I just say, "I guess I need to do a little more work on this before we can move on. Let's do something else for now."

Yesterday at the dojo, the club's most junior instructor tried to lead us in some exercises with the bokken (wooden sword). This began with partners matching each other in an alternating sequence of blocks and strikes. For the next step, our instructor brought up the other yudansha (black belt) present to be his partner in demonstration.

The first exercise, said our instructor, was preparation for the second, in which the sequence was offset so that one partner was striking while the other was blocking. In verbal form, this idea made plenty of sense, but it became clear as he attempted to demonstrate that it simply didn't work. Try as he might, our instructor just couldn't make this particular block work for this particular strike, at least not in a way that allowed the sequence to continue.

His demonstration partner, an aikidoka of the same rank but with longer and broader experience in the art, did his best to help out, trying out little tweaks to see if he could make the sequence work. He couldn't. Our instructor was missing something, something important enough that the entire sequence ground to a halt without it. It quickly became obvious to all of us--except, apparently, our instructor--that this wasn't going anywhere.

For several minutes we sat, watching our instructor try to figure out this exercise so that he could teach it to us. Most of us got tired of holding the seiza position after the first minute or two and shifted to sitting cross-legged as we waited, bored and increasingly frustrated. We began to cast sidelong glances at each other, wondering when he would give up and move on to something else so that we could get back to training. He pressed on, though, trying to work it out with his polite but increasingly exasperated partner.

After every conceivable option had been exhausted, our instructor finally stopped. There was a collective sigh of relief as we all anticipated moving on to something more pertinent, perhaps the kumitachi (paired sword kata) that would be in our upcoming tests. Instead, the instructor turned to us, smiling, and said, "Let's try it. See if you can figure it out together."

I was dumbfounded. There were no words for it.

My training partner and I would find the words a few moments into the most confused and clueless training session in either of our martial arts lives. They were quiet words, grumbled to each other under our breaths. I won't repeat them here.

I don't say this very often about training, because I think almost everything we do in the dojo serves a purpose, but it was  a complete waste of our time. We wasted time watching our instructor try to figure something out for himself rather than teaching, and then we wasted more time trying to practice something we hadn't been taught.

This is the first time in this blog I have made so bold as to openly criticize an instructor. I want to make clear, though, that it is not his forgetfulness I am criticizing. There is little shame in ignorance in and of itself. The shame comes when we, in our pride, cling to our ignorance and try (always futilely) to row upriver against the current of reality.

That's why we train. Hard, honest training is the best cure I know of for ego and ignorance. If you can't admit you're out of shape, if you think you're better than you are, if you're in denial of an injury, hard training is a surefire cure. Every martial artist knows what I'm talking about; they all can remember a moment when their pride and delusions were dashed (perhaps painfully) by training.

For me, it was when a common nikkyo lock sprained my wrist. Until then, I'd thought I was ready to play with the black belts. Delusion cured.

What I did take away from yesterday's class is that, years from now, when my time comes to teach, I don't want to be the one clinging to my ignorance, the big fool pushing on as the water rises. And that means more training. The more pride and delusion I can get beaten out of me before students are depending on me, the better.

See you on the mat.