INB #19: What to teach?

Student-teacher discussion on a fine point of Kung Fu. Student-teacher discussion on a Kung Fu fine point.

I’m sitting here, after teaching for a few hours, seriously considering revising everything about my decades-old curriculum, despite the years of refinement I’ve given it. My particular art is Kung Fu (and yes, Taiji and Bagua are also Kung Fu). It’s a very easy art to teach at one level and near impossible at another. To this is added the difficulty of students’ expectations and aspirations—or lack thereof. Among my students one is a Taiko teacher and we often find parallels in that many students take up the drumsticks or don the uniform with little or no intention of becoming good or even particularly competent in their chosen arts.

This, according to PC (philosophically correct) thinking , is perfectly ok. Consumers should just please themselves. But I’m thinking that it’s not so ok. There are always such cases, of course. But in far more cases than I’d like to think about I get exactly the opposite impression. I perceive that the pleasure of whiling away the time is insufficient. And the intriguing aspect here is that this feeling comes from the students themselves, but not directly, no indeed.

The first impediment in students striving for more than the mediocre is, of course, money. Not the cost of the lessons but the idea of service as a form of trade. They are paying for their lessons, right? That’s supposed to be the “have it your way” justification for low goals and unfocused practice. Of course if I were a lawyer and the client asked me to do something illegal, unethical, or bad for the client herself it would be my duty to tell her “no” with certainty. By the same token my OTHER clients would also benefit from the fact that I have honest relationships with my clients and colleagues. So the idea of the client with the money calling the shots is fallacious. If you think about it, it is not ever advantageous to the client in question. This basic ethical concept has faded to the color of a nuance. The service provider in the electronic consumer culture seems to be the equivalent of a servant. There are far too many teachers who think they are in control– Great Grand Honored Masters–but are, in reality, the chattel of their students.

The fallacy is huge, still many people miss it. The fact that someone charges you money does not mean the transaction is commercial. People teach people just as people have sex. That’s what people do. The fact that some people receive money for the transaction does not make all sex prostitution. The fact that a teacher gets paid does not make him an employee (and the ironic thing is that this is true on both sides of the political spectrum. Trust an old objectivist.) True story, I had a fellow years back walk into my school and ask about lessons. In the middle of the conversation he said, “You know, in the old days the masters never charged for lessons.” I replied, “That’s absolutely right. But then again the student had responsibilities to take care of them. Like cleaning the toilets. Do you want to know where they are?” He wisely said no.

That point aside, we then turn to the teacher. How does he feel with people who make lackadaisical look like a caffeine commercial. Students should realize that they have to inspire their instructors just as much as be inspired. I don’t think the teacher should waste time. This, of course, applies after some investigation. Does the student have unknown restrictions? Are they aware of them? Are they ashamed? Are they lazy? Is their practice concessionary (do they just do what you want and no more) ? As a general rule few instructors will get rid of a student who tries, listens, practices. But why waste your time with the non-compliant.Even if you think you can thaw the uninvolved you must still reach the understanding, generally from bitter experience, that you can not make a three sectional staff out of a broken chopstick.

All the above is simply the groundwork, barely considering the question. We reach deeper and see the whole problem as one of authority and expectation. The truth is that the student of an art like Kung Fu generally does not have the slightest idea what he or she is getting into. Their expectations are superficial because their experience is superficial. But, even more, perhaps their knowledge of everything is superficial. Most people know you don’t ever understand your own family or anyone else’s. And few people would describe their jobs are being well understood by the public at large. But since Kung Fu and martial arts are “leisure activities” they should, by definition, be rather simple minded, easy to understand–or so people think. Engaging, but never demanding. In other words, not only NOT Kung Fu, but the very opposite of what the term actually means.

There are so many beautiful experiences wrapped in even the most ignorant approach to this ancient master-art that we find, to our shock, it intimidates and irritates students rather than thrilling them. There are some reasons for this. At the outset of study there are some very bitter herbs to drink. People realize to their astonishment that they are awkward, confused, overbearing, physically uneducated. Then, while still reeling, they get the body blow: all this is done with a Traditional Chinese aesthetic of movement instead of a modern interpretation. While some styles, like TaeKwonDo, have developed into widely exaggerative performance-oriented actions, classical Kung Fu, though beautiful, is not performance but experience. Ignore the Wushu “champions” and the movies. Kung Fu, like real organic vegetables, often disappoints because it shows blemishes, odd shapes, non-standard sizes. But, oh, the taste.

And then there’s the problem of talent. As a general rule people are afraid of the responsibility of having talent. Talent is very narrow in our culture. If you sing or act or tend bar with flair you MIGHT have a marketable talent. At least, even if you never make a penny, you will have people at parties nod their head when you tell them how you spend your off hours. Kung Fu only makes sense to people who understand Kung Fu or, at least, cultured movement. It is an inside-to-outside art like poetry. It is not explicable any more than a poem is merely an “information source”.

more later