Saturday, January 16, 2010

Martial Arts Teachers

One of the issues raised in John Donohue's novels is that of the relationship between a martial arts teacher and his—usually 'his'—student(s). Donohue obviously has been through some soul-searching in the regard, just like his main character, Connor Burke. The relationship is ambivalent, though probably more so now, and more problematic, too; especially in what they call 'this day and age', where so many things are in flux.

The most interesting and potentially controversial relationship is, of course, that between a student who has been with a teacher for some significant time; and where both, teacher and student, are what you might call 'strong personalities', with the student not some fawning, adoring co-dependent, but a definite person of his own, whose attitude toward the teacher alternates, sometimes with a high flipping-frequency that makes it look like both states actually existed simultaneously, between admiration/respect and suspicion/dislike.

There's also the issue of how 'close' students come to their teachers, or teachers to their students. What to teachers expect of their students, and what do students want out of their teachers? What are their separate and/or common agendas for this relationship?†

In the martial arts, maybe more so than anywhere else, teachers are likely to demand a great deal of blanket obedience, at least on the dojo floor. The more serious this gets, and the more the teacher sees himself (herself) as a 'sensei' in the true sense, the more profound and far-reaching the 'obedience' factor is likely to become. There is, in other words, a definite attempt at control of the life of another person, who in turn must agree to be controlled in such a way, even if s/he doesn't really like some of it. But there must be a degree of trust that overcomes the student's reluctance to subject herself to the teacher's whims; and 'whims' is the right word.

A lot of teachers in this area also subscribe to a doctrine, which is also found at military schools and modern-day acting schools. In these systems the theory is that in order to train the student, one must first take him or her apart—psychologically speaking—and then putting them back together again. This is a form of narrative-altering, also known as brain-washing, which I find profoundly objectionable. It offends my sense of the dignity of a person. Only someone who wants to be altered and who chooses to undergo such a shredding-followed-by-reconfiguration—for whatever reasons that are his or her own alone—should be subjected to such treatment.

I'm much more of a mind to build on whatever is already there—even if it appears 'bad'—and to use this to make the student, and allow the student to make him or herself, into a more whole person, with part of their strength of character derived, and taking its energy from, their 'dark side'. Of course, the prerequisite for this to work must be a student who has a desire to 'change' from whatever they happen to see themselves as being at the time. Which also means, at least in my book, that, just as an example, accepting someone into a dojo, who basically just wants to learn how to beat the crap out of people and become a latter-day variation on the Musashi theme (wandering self-important, though very skilled, thug, looking for fights), and who doesn't have that desire to be other than he is...that's actually not a good thing. I would probably find it difficult to justify it that a student of mine, trained by me to indeed beat the crap out of people, actually ends up doing so without a reason that I could justify myself as having and being abkle to accept.

Which makes the idea of opening a dojo very problematic indeed, especially in this culture and the urban environment we're living in. I don't know how I could do it without really constantly watching and controlling what to teach to whom and when; plus reserving myself the right to say to someone "Sorry, but what you seek, you won't find here." Which has its own issues, because how can you tell for whom there's real hope and for whom there isn't, and you'd better send him off to the nearby Ninja joint? Haven't you assumed a responsibility by taking the student on to begin with that bars you from acting in such a way? And what right do you have anyway, to judge a person as being basically one who should not be taught such things—or, conversely, those who are OK to be taught? Isn't sending them off to some kick-the-crap school not possibly more irresponsible than trying to nurture them to more complete human beings?

I've had such thoughts many times, and maybe I'm overthinking things. Or maybe I'm not. But I think the business of equipping people with the ability to seriously maim others, or worse, shouldn't be a 'business'; not the usual kind anyway. By selling this product—this skill, if you will—one automatically assumes a kind of responsibility of how it is used. Of course, you can't 'control' it, because everybody is their own person, and ultimately you shouldn't be held responsible for what your students choose to do with what they've learned from their teacher—though society may end up doing just that! Everything has consequences, most of them unpredictable, and many of them not even thought of.

It's easy to be a student in a martial arts school. I know it doesn't seem that way to most students. Teachers appear to have all the fun. They can boss students around; be a whimsical as they please under the mantle of apparently flimsy excuses like 'keep-you-on-your-toes inscrutability'; stand there and do nothing but look and direct while the rest of the class sweats and strains and hurts; set tests that appear totally unrealistic; and so on. And that is, in some—maybe many, but in any case 'too many'—instances, very probably exactly as it appears. Teachers, especially of the martial arts variety, usually got to where they are by having significant egos and high opinions of themselves; though how these arose are different questions altogether. They may overtly, and possibly even internally, pay humility-homage to masters yet higher up the food-chain than themselves, but they're pretty damn sure, by the time they open a dojo and start signing their name with the prefix 'sensei', that in their nick of the woods, pond or backyard, they're pretty hot shit. Those who work within a framework of an organization, be it a ryu like MJER or TSKSR or some martial arts organization of a much more secular, political and practical streak—and, yes, the boundaries are usually very blurred!—have a further issue with their position within hierarchies. All of this makes for serious distractions from the real job of martial arts practice and teaching; plus everything that should go with it.

In a country like Australia, representative of current Western society and its trends, paradigms, politics and socially-expecteds-and-acceptables, the teacher-student relationship largely defined by the business-end of things—the students purchase a product and the teachers deliver it, or not—as well as the simple fact that, excluding co-dependency relationships and their relatives, the personal engagement between teachers and students has a certain degree of professional uncommittedness. Teachers, by and large, are like...well, preachers maybe. Professional manipulators of the social structure of a flock, as well as, in this instance, the job of teaching them certain skills and, say in the instance of someone like a Head-Master or high-ranking sensei, coming for a teaching visit or a seminar/workshop, ensuring that either the style or whatever the sensei considers he should transmit gets taught as it should.

But it's still basically like the pastor during and after Sunday Mass. I've looked carefully, during the visits of Style Masters or high-ranking sensei—all unquestionably superbly skilled and intelligent; and invariably alpha-male—for more than just the pastor and skill-teacher. Every now and then I saw flashes of it, and I've even seen instances where a Style Master exhibited a sense of 'care' for something else than his style—but it was only 'flashes'. The visitors usually strive to deliver the goods as they understand their 'goods' and how they should and need to be delivered, but it still always had an air of essentially detached professionalism.

This makes sense, of course, and how could it be different? It's the result of an excessively large Student/Teacher ratio and nothing can be done about it. And if you want to run a dojo around here, or just about anywhere, you'll soon find yourself aiming for the highest possible S/T ratio, because that's how you pay the bills, even if you're non-profit. It's like a sports club, but what's OK for a sports club simply isn't for a dojo. That's what I think anyway. And I may be wrong. It's been known to happen. But anything above, say, S/T=5, give or take two, and you're forced to turn on 'pastor' mode more than is good for you. And the more levels there are in the student body, the more difficult it gets. I know there are are crowd management techniques and delegation of teaching to lower grades, but it changes the whole dynamic; and though it's accepted practice and there are apparently cogent reasons for delegating in such a context, I have a gut sense that something's not right about all this.

Gotta think about this more. Much more.

† BTW, having said all that, there are relationships here that contain little of the kind of emotional input I hinted at above. In some instances it's really just about one person teaching another some skills that the teacher simply knows better. There may be a bit of ritualistic behavior involved—especially if the training context is somewhat formal in terms of etiquette, as tends to be the case in a lot of dojos of Japanese derivation, and also from other Asian contexts—but this isn't the level of teacher-student involvement I'm talking about here.

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