Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Blessings of Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan

I really need to get back on the ball re: blogging about my training, here. It's not that I have little to say, but rather that the things that have been on my mind and that I most want to discuss touch on some issues of privacy about other students, so I consider them off-limits here. This is frustrating, as it's pretty much impossible for me to just move onto a new topic when there's another one that's dominating my thoughts. So, instead, I've spent quite a bit of time wool-gathering, trying to figure out just how to approach these topics without breaching confidences. The only real answer is to keep things very generalized, but that also feels somewhat unsatisfying. Regardless, I think it's more important to protect the feelings (and, in some cases, the personal lives and families) of others than it is for me to feel fulfilled in something as esoteric and ultimately unimportant as my own blog, so priorities, priorities, priorities.

The main issues that have been bouncing around in my head revolve around the responsibilities of the teacher to the student, particularly in regard to how that teacher represents the goals of the organization to which they -- and their students -- belong. In many martial arts organizations this is not so much of an issue, as most "modern" American martial arts schools don't have a particularly strict focus on intellectual or philosophical codes or personal development aside from the more general, physically-oriented high-level goals. Better physical fitness. The ability to defend ones' self. The ability to wrestle or fight in tournaments effectively.

In and of themselves these are all perfectly fine goals, but I've always felt that they are also fairly unlikely to result in any sort of significant change in ones' life beyond short-term improvements of one sort or another. If anything, their very specificity leads directly, in many cases, to student boredom. Without an emphasis on applying the skills learned in the training hall to other aspects of ones' life, to abstracting the physical gains and placing them in a more holistic context, then this is all just another form of exercise that will be replaced by a different physical activity when the novelty of "Doin' Karate!" wears off.

Without a larger goal then, training in the martial arts really isn't all that different from any other structured exercise regimen, and without an effort on the part of the instructor to encourage students to embrace the art as something life-changing as opposed to simply health-improving, it's unlikely to result in a lifelong commitment to the specific art. Now, obviously, this is in many ways perfectly fine with the instructor, who is as often as not also the business owner as well. Students typically sign multi-year contracts, which even if they allow for breaking of the contract typically include a penalty for doing so (and those are the good ones). If a student chooses to stop training then the instructor doesn't really suffer any direct or immediate negatives. If anything, they get to draw some more cash out of a student who requires absolutely none of the instructors time or resources. If the owner is focusing adequate efforts on marketing and signing up new students them turnover is at worst a non-issue and may actually be beneficial financially. The quickest path to profit is to focus on new enrollment, lock students into contracts, and then passively encourage turnover by running a program that allows all but the most dedicated students -- i.e. the students who least need active instruction -- to become unmotivated, stagnant, or bored.

Conversely, in the Mi Guk Kwan there is a lot of emphasis placed on the historical and philosophical foundation of our art, and on one's success in the physical aspects of our art being dependent on expression and embracing of these underpinnings. There is a tremendous amount of focus placed on reinforcing this attitude in our organization, and certainly in the approaches to training and instruction undertaken by all of the instructors I've had the privilege to study with. Ironically, this approach makes their jobs much harder (in that it requires far more instructor/student interaction in order to be applied properly) and also makes it much more difficult for them to "cash in." This is not to say that it's impossible to do well financially -- it just means that it's trickier to do so without personal sacrifice and long-term commitment on the part of everyone involved.

If the appeal of your organization and your school is personal growth and self improvement through the martial arts, then by definition these are long-term goals. They aren't going to occur after 3 months of sweating it out, and part of the instructor's job is to demonstrate -- by their own example, and through their own conduct -- their own daily commitment to these principals. If they aren't doing so, honestly and forthrightly, their students will know. And ultimately their students will not realize the benefits that are obtainable through these arts, probably because they'll move on when they figure out that the "ideals" that are claimed as goals by the organization are in fact little more than window dressing to their instructor.

Recently, I heard about an instructor in our organization who had chosen to integrate his testing with the testing of another tang soo do school in his area. This tang soo do school was not part of the Mi Guk Kwan -- not shocking, as we are a fairly small organization -- and there were significant differences in the curriculum as well as the manner in which specific techniques were being performed in the course of testing. And this is a big deal. We're not talking about basic white-or-orange-belt level curriculum here: we're talking about 3rd, 2nd, 1st gup-level stuff. These students have been training for 2-3 years to learn the curriculum on which they are being tested. These are stringent, demanding exams in the best of situations.

So the question becomes one of why? Why did he choose to test his students alongside a bunch of students from another organization, especially one whose techniques differed substantially from our own? What was there to gain? This was not an exhibition or tournament -- it's a test. This is possibly the least appropriate situation to mix with other schools or organizations imaginable. There is no way that this decision was made in the interest of his students -- that's obvious.

So the question remains then who, exactly, stood to benefit? The obvious answer is, of course, the instructor or instructors who chose to run the test in concert with each other, without regard for the effect this would have on those testing. The reasons they chose to do this are hard to guess, but I'd assume they were derived from financial and marketing opportunities coupled with an attitude of "It's my school, I'll do as I want." No one else stood to benefit in any manner.

In my eyes that's a betrayal of both the students and the Mi Guk Kwan itself: the message that cavalierly joining up with another school that is not of your organization for something as organizationally specific as testing sends to your students about the importance you place on their testing experience, and importance and significance of your organizations curriculum, technical content, and philosophy. Of basically telling them that while they are trained exhaustively to do things a certain way, because at this level there is in fact a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do things, this isn't really actually true or important. By doing this their instructor indicated that all the focus on personal enrichment and rigid discipline and militaristic hierarchy was just talk, because when push came to shove their instructor, the person who directly represents the Mi Guk Kwan to them, decided he didn't want to be bothered with that stuff.

And if their instructor -- someone who theoretically has devoted a significant portion of his life to pursuing the benefits of training and who represents the ideals of the organization to which he belongs -- isn't going to live it, why should his students believe for one moment that it's important and powerful enough to change their own lives? Because clearly it didn't change his.

I've always felt that the Mi Guk Kwan places a pretty heavy burden on its students. The curriculum load is heavy and the techniques demanding, yes, but it's emphasis on intellectual and philosophical development make it heavier still. This is not a complaint, mind you, but rather something I admire about it. I am thrilled daily by the challenges the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan has placed before me.

But this episode has also shown me how the Mi Guk Kwan places a heavy burden on its studio owners as well. There are lots of short-cuts to greater profitability they could take in other organizations that in ours are simply not acceptable and which are not permitted. The lure of easy money is a hard one to ignore, and I consider myself so very fortunate to be associated with instructors who choose to ignore it day in and day out. And to be part of an organization -- in America, of all places! -- that continually places the needs of the students ahead of the shortest route to profit for the studio owners is a blessing indeed.

Mood: Distracted
Now Playing: Santogold, "Santogold"


Oh THAT Aaron Brown said...

Belton? or Canyon Lake?

Gregg P. said...

Neither - we're not perfect down here, but this particular story has nothing to do with our region.

coolingstar9 said...

Learning martial art is good for body.
It is good to instill some good values to the students as well.
Happy new year to you.

Gregg P. said...

Thank you for your comment coolingstar9 -- I couldn't agree more! And Happy New Year to you as well.

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