Can universities preserve the traditional Asian martial arts?
At the outset one must start by admitting that this is an audacious question. It challenges so much of what we think we know about the nature of martial arts instruction and the role of institutions of higher education in modern society. Nor does a quick examination of this question suggest too much space for hope.
After all, how could university departments possibly take on such a novel task at the same time that the very foundations of these organizations are being challenged by shrinking budgets, rising corporate influence, the wide scale de-professionalization of classroom instruction and the general crisis of self-confidence that seems to have spread from the humanities to infect all of the non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields? Nor is it clear who would support these sorts of classes. Traditionally the humanities and the social sciences have ignored most of the concerns of “physical education,” reinforcing the body/mind division that is so deeply engrained in the western world view. Attempts to house such efforts in Asian and Cultural studies programs are sure to raise concerns about harmful stereotypes, the reinforcement of essentialist identities and cultural appropriation.
Indeed, given the historic and institutional barriers that any such effort would encounter, it would take a patient and farsighted individual to suggest that Asian Studies departments, rather than physical education instructors and student clubs, should be taking a leading role in the teaching of the traditional martial arts in university classes. Luckily Douglas Wile, an Emeritus Professor of Brooklyn College (CUNY) and current Associate Professor at Alverno College, has stepped into the ring to open this conversation.
In a recent article published in the JOMEC Journal’s special edition on Martial Arts Studies, Wile notes that we are seeing an odd asymmetry in the academic work on these fighting systems. The last few decades have witnessed an explosion of interest in the academic study of the martial arts. While this trend seems to date back to the 1980s, from the late 1990s onward all sorts of anthropological, historical, cultural and sociological studies of these fighting systems have been published.
Yet research is only half of the obligation of most academics. We are expected to spend equal time in the classroom. While the numbers of books and articles on the martial arts have mushroomed, we have not seen much growth in the exploration of these subjects in the lecture hall. Nor is Wile simply referring to discussions of the history, sociology and cultural meaning of these arts (thought we certainly need more of those sorts of classes as well).
Rather, much of the current research on the martial arts is being conducted by “participant observers” with deep connections to the martial arts community at large. Discussions of pedagogy are currently filled with enthusiasm for the idea of “embodied learning” and other sorts of “hands on” field experience. Why not invite students to participate in the academic discussion of these arts at the same time that they actually participate in their practice and study?
After all, the martial arts are an inescapably embodied practice that often leads to deep personal transformations in the individuals who practice them. Indeed, it is that very promise of empowerment or transformation (which has been understood in many different ways in various times and places) which draws so many students to these systems to begin with. In an era when every department has an internship program and every technology class has a lab, should the humanities and social sciences take a more proactive role in introducing students to the actual practice of the martial arts?
This is the question that Douglas Wile asks his readers to consider as he sets out on a lengthy and detailed review of the academic literature on martial arts studies. His article is energetic, well researched and raises profound questions. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the shape or future of the field. For the sake of simplicity Wile begins with the assumption that Asian studies departments might be the most interested in such classes, but there is no reason that the basic thrust of his argument should not apply just as well to history departments or a number of fields in the social sciences.
He notes that perhaps the most important, and subtle, barrier to such classes might be the longstanding mind/body dichotomy that is the foundation of much of western popular culture. In contrast the traditional martial arts have tended to approach individuals as a single unified being in ways that modern educational institutions, divided into separate “academic” and “physical education” colleges, usually do not. Luckily this approach seems to be crumbling, making way for new methods of embodied learning. Thus a sound theoretical and pedagogical argument can be made for the sorts of classes that he proposes.
Nor is this approach totally unique. As he points out in his article there are a handful of professors who have created such classes in North America and Europe. Indeed, Adam Frank has previously discussed his experience teaching these sorts of courses in a guest post here at Kung Fu Tea. Wile briefly discusses the syllabi and nature of a number of these efforts providing readers with a variety of models for structuring courses of their own.
Reviewing the State of Martial Arts Studies
By far the most remarkable aspect of this article is its 35 pages of appendixes. Here Prof. Wile provides an annotated review of the martial arts studies literature. Rather than offering a systematic critique of the development and direction of the field he instead highlights a number of classic and contemporary selections in different categories ranging from Feminist Studies and History to Psychology and the Medicine. Aside from the sports science literature (which he actually does discuss earlier in his main article) pretty much every contemporary approach to the study and analysis of the martial arts is included in this review.
Wile’s efforts are remarkable not just for their breadth but also their depth. In addition to the best known pieces in each category he also digs into less familiar sources including dissertations, conference paper and classic works (some dating back to the 19th century). Indeed, this review of the literature is a testament both to his erudition and prodigious scholarship. Even dedicated students of martial arts studies are sure to find something new in its pages.
Given that Wile took the time to annotate this discussion and presentation of the literature I was a little surprised that he was so reserved when it came to evaluating the quality of the sources that he dealt with. Of course the multifaceted nature of martial studies itself makes this a difficult task. There are so many perspectives that many of these works will be read from that perhaps it is simply better to note what is out there and to let individual researchers work out its value for themselves.
While the discussion of martial arts instruction in the academic classroom provided in the main body of the paper is the most interesting aspect of this article, there is no doubt that its appendixes will be remembered as its most useful element for years to come. Individuals looking to design a course on practically any element of martial studies will find many suggestions for possible readings and units in its pages. Researchers, and those working on writing projects, will benefit equally from its contributions to their own literature reviews.
Martial Arts in the University: The Problem of Being a “Generalist”
Between the theoretical arguments that Wile marshals in favor of embodied learning in the classroom, the various course models that he discusses and the extensive literature review, instructors who have been thinking about incorporating the traditional Asian martial arts into their teaching are now left with few options but to begin working on the subject in earnest.
Indeed, the model of martial arts instruction in an academic setting that Wile offers is an attractive one. Not only does it capture the current excitement for performance ethnography and embodied learning, but it might also help us to train more holistic and self-aware students at a time when so many forces in both society and academia are pushing individuals towards ever greater degrees of specialization at earlier points in time. The ideal of learning for its own sake, or the belief that an education was meant to contribute to the development of an individual’s “character” (as opposed to simply their employment prospects) seems increasingly quaint in the current environment.
In some respects the traditional martial arts and academics are natural allies. By focusing on the development of the “total person” martial arts instruction might help to restore something that has been lost from western education. At the same time, Wile is obviously concerned with the ultimate fate of the traditional Asian combat systems.
Looking at the rise in popularity of combat sports, the decline of a number of styles and the trends towards increased “commercialization,” he wonders if perhaps the university will not ultimately “save the soul” of these practices. After all, where else but in an academic classroom can students engage in a deep and sustained discussion of the history, philosophy or sociology of these practices in conjunction with their actual application? While such discussions should be possible within the marketplace, increasingly the deeper and more “philosophical” aspect of these practices seems to be slipping by the wayside.
This is perhaps the most thought provoking and controversial aspect of Wile’s argument. It seems that the current social order simply does not value the contribution of generalists. Results are what count, and the “best” results seem to be the product of ever increasing specialization.
The Chinese martial arts rose to new heights of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century by claiming to provide a synthesis of what was valuable in both Chinese society and culture. They offered the promise of physical security, increased health, self-cultivation and a closer identification with the newly imagined nation, all through the adoption of a single, supposedly “timeless,” set of practices. This was basically the assurance that one could solve the problems of modern existence through a return to a “forgotten” past. It was the claim that these answers had been there all along, and simply needed to be rediscovered. This was an attractive promise for members of a society facing an existential crisis.
Nor is the pattern totally unique. We have seen similar assertions made about many martial systems. One does not have to delve too far into the Japanese, Filipino or Indonesian martial arts to find a very similar discourse. The promise of a single unified truth, which underlays all of the disparate elements of life, still attracts certain students to the traditional martial arts today.
Yet it stands to reason that any single system which attempts to accomplish a variety of goals will not do so as efficiently as a set of more specialized solutions. Indeed, this seems to be the root of the problem facing the Asian martial arts in the current era. There are simply not enough people looking for a grand unified system. They want something “real,” and that is almost always a results driven discourse. Traditional artists lose out to combat sports practitioners in the ring, soldiers on the battlefield, and trained doctors in the field of medicine.
Indeed, the crisis facing the martial arts is basically identical to the one gripping higher education. In what ways can a liberal arts education actually lead to a better job and more pay in a dismal employment market? Should students rationally invest in generalized “ways of knowing” when only highly specific skills bring economic rewards?
Given the state of America’s universities, one might legitimately wonder if they are capable of preserving any generalized system of meaning at all. The challenges that the traditional martial arts currently face seem to originate from more fundamental social shifts. They may require a rethinking of these practices on par with the transformation that they underwent in the 1890-1920 time period.
While universities may very well be able to preserve a certain vision of the traditional Asian martial arts, Wile’s argument leaves me with a nagging doubt as to whether that is ultimately a good thing. Certainly whenever we make something a matter of academic study we separate it from the realm of pure popular culture, creating what Bowman has referred to as a “disciplinary object.” One suspects that there must be a number of once vital cultural practices, such as the production of stone tools or the oration of classical Latin texts, which now exist only as “disciplinary objects” whose practice is subsidized in whole or part by the world’s universities.
I suspect that we will see many more classes on the Asian martial arts in the future and I think that this is a very good thing. I hope to even be able to teach a few of them myself at some point. But what I would hate to see is the transformation of the Asian martial arts into a hothouse flower which can only survive in the sheltered environment of a subsidizing institution.
It may very well be the case that the central driving identity of these systems, most of which were forged in the early years of the 20th century, are less attractive now than they were in the past. Yet what has always captivated me about martial culture is its ability to transform itself, sometimes radically, in the face of an evolving environment. Indeed, for all their appearance of timeless tradition, the Chinese martial arts have undergone fundamental transformations in practically every era. Innovation has always been as much a part of their story as preservation. It would be quite odd to think that somehow the current generation would be exempt from this responsibility.
Douglas Wile has done the field of martial arts studies two immense services in his recent article. He has provided us with the most detailed and up to date literature review that we currently have. Often such articles devolve into dry recitations of authors and lists. Wile has always been a lively writer and he brings to this review the same sense of energy and enthusiasm that readers have come to expect. Indeed, I actually cannot remember the last time that I enjoyed a review article quite so much or was inspired to actually read one so closely.
Wile has also jump started a long overdue conversation about the actual practice of the martial arts in academic settings. He approaches the question from a number of historical and philosophical perspectives and makes a strong argument that Asian Studies departments could benefit from these sorts of courses. Students would enjoy them and they can be seen as tapping into some of the most important trends in higher education today. Lastly Wile asks us to think carefully about what universities can do for a variety of traditional hand combat practices. This is a more difficult question, but it is one that is well worth discussing.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Martial Arts: So What? By Adam D. Frank.