Who decides what you want to learn?

A traditional dojo is not the place to pick and choose your lessons, nor try to direct what and how you will be taught. Curriculum and methods are meant to be taken on trust. The prerequisite of trust is a defining quality of traditional training, and a powerful one: It’s what opens the door for people to learn more than they signed on for. Often, it’s what makes it possible for people to push themselves.

Setting aside questions about abuse of trust, or unqualified instructors–let’s assume we’re talking about schools that teach with integrity and skill.

Even so, the approach can be problematic. People come to training with varied interests, for different reasons, with diverse needs. They see themselves as customers, and they want to feel they’re being served. Some of the value of traditional training doesn’t come clear for years. Instructors to some degree must sell the value of their approach. An old school instructor won’t be interested in this kind of selling. There’s compromise involved.

What got me thinking about this? I came across a book from a few years back–a guide for novices who are looking to choose and begin training in a martial art. It had the following entry in the table of contents:

NEGOTIATE: Yes, you are entitled to tailor your training around activities that interest you.

Hmmm, I thought. Yes and no. You are certainly entitled to choose where and how you train, and to move on if you don’t find it satisfactory. But when you sign on at a traditional school, you shouldn’t be thinking “negotiate.” You should be thinking, “Train with all my heart, for long enough to see how much I gain.”

Turning to the referenced page, I found this passage:

“Before you leave, tell the instructor what aspects of the class you liked most. He might say that if you joined, he would incorporate more of that into your training. Take him up on the offer. Too often, instructors make such an offer only after a student decides to stop training.”

Again, hmmm. This is one of those American/Traditional dilemmas. We are interested in what our students want. We are aware they see themselves as customers, and we want them to be served. Those of us who believe in tradition, believe they will be served–very well served–by traditional training. We want them to stay around to find out. So it’s tempting sometimes to cater to whatever wishes they happen to express.

Catering, though, is a trap, and ultimately it doesn’t serve anyone well. For one thing, catering to a dozen different personalities is a juggling act that can bring down a class. Better to have a clear, coherent focus you believe in. Serve the students, not through the superficial pursuit of their satisfaction, but through your deep belief in what you are doing, and your own pursuit of excellence in teaching.

For another, students’ wishes don’t always correspond to their needs. It’s not patronizing; it’s the truth. Martial arts is a strenuous, uncomfortable pursuit, one of whose goals is to conquer strain and discomfort. A good instructor must often get the student to do the opposite of what they wish. Furthermore, it’s a pursuit in which experience counts, just as, in life, maturity counts. (Remember how much you thought you knew after two years of training? Four years? Ten years?) An experienced instructor makes the better guide, and the student gains much by following a better guide.

If you’re the student, pick and choose your dojo–but then, let the training and the teachers do their work. If you’re the teacher, be clear in what you offer; believe in it; stick to it.

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