Lessons We Can Learn From the Popularity of Martial Arts Schools

Lessons We Can Learn From the Popularity of Martial Arts Schools

Kevin deLaplante


I confess that one of the reasons I’m attracted to the martial arts theme is jealousy. As a teacher and a philosopher, I’m totally jealous of martial arts schools. I’m jealous of their popularity, and of the way they’ve managed to serve an important public need outside of traditional educational institutions.

But that jealousy has also been a source of inspiration about how educational experiences can be packaged and delivered to the public, outside of the public school system and academia.

They’re Everywhere

Think about this. I’m currently living in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada. Ottawa is a decent sized city. When I drive around I see martial arts studios everywhere. You might notice this too, depending on where you live.

Google maps shows about 60 martial arts studios in the Ottawa area. 60!

I trained at some of them when I was younger. I did a couple of years of karate with Douvris Martial Arts, I did a couple years of judo at a community center. In Iowa I did taekwondo at the school where my kids trained.

I’ve always enjoyed my experience in martial arts programs and studios.

They Teach More Than Martial Arts Techniques

Martial arts schools don’t just teach martial arts techniques. The diversity of programs is remarkable.

You see different styles of martial arts. There are kung fu styles I didn’t used to see. Mixed martial arts has really popularized jiu-jitsu and muay thai. There’s more interest in training in different styles in the same studio.

A lot of these schools offer fitness training and self-defense classes alongside the traditional martial arts training. Some programs have competition teams, some have special weapons classes and weapons competitions. Most of the bigger schools offer programs for different age ranges. “Little dragons”, kids, youth, adult, sometimes senior classes.

And many programs explicitly offer training that emphasizes character development and leadership skills. This isn’t something that you would expect to see if you weren’t familiar with the culture of martial arts.

Almost every form of organized martial arts has a philosophical core that is important to the identity of the discipline and that teachers promote not just as a system of combat, but as a way of life.

In the schools where I trained, instructors would devote some regular class time to talk about virtues of character like respect, perseverance, courtesy, or integrity, that are central tenets of the discipline.  They’d give the basic definition of the concept and we would discuss examples, both inside the dojo and outside, at home or at school or in your workplace.

Students would have to know these principles as part of their testing, as a condition for advancement. The rules of the dojo required that you practice them, demonstrate them. To test for your black belt you might have to write an essay on some aspect of the philosophy of martial arts training.

The fact is that these schools are providing training in ethics, in decision-making skills, in personal development, in leadership, as an essential part of a martial arts program — a program ostensibly dedicated to the art of combat.

They Operate Outside the Public Education System

And these programs are run outside of any state-controlled educational system, and in a way that is largely decentralized.

Yes, if you’re officially a taekwondo school you’re expected to train in the style of that school, and there are international organizations and years of tradition that stipulate what that style should look like.

But still, if I want to open a martial arts school I can open a martial arts school. My school’s reputation and the market will decide if I’m successful or not.

Think about this from my perspective, as a critical thinking educator. The public education system does a horrible job at teaching critical thinking skills. Public schooling does serve a number of important social functions, but nurturing our capacity for independent critical thought is not one of them. It’s unreasonable to hope that some educational reform movement will come along and make education for critical thinking a priority all of a sudden. That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

However, it’s not unreasonable to think that individuals and private organizations can come together to offer educational services that the public sector doesn’t provide, or doesn’t provide well.

Isn’t this what those 60 martial arts school in my city are offering? Individuals and private organizations coming together to offer educational opportunities that the public sector doesn’t provide.

The moral is that we shouldn’t expect the public school system to be responsible for delivering every type of valuable educational experience. And in fact we don’t.

This is the main lesson we can learn from the popularity of martial arts schools.

Why Not an Argument Ninja Academy?

So, getting back to my jealousy, I’m driving around and I come across one of these martial arts academies just around the corner from where I live.

The sign says “Florin’s Ultimate Martial Arts Academy: MMA, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo”. It’s a big school, there’s lots people coming in and out of the doors.

And I ask myself, why couldn’t that sign say “Florin’s Ultimate Critical Thinker Academy”? Or “Martial Arts for the Mind: Get a Black Belt in Thinking”? Or “Argument Ninja Academy”?

Why is that such a crazy idea?

Imagine a brochure for one of these full-service martial arts academies that offer martial arts classes, fitness classes, self-defense classes, specialty programs, the works.

But this one is a full-service critical thinking academy. It offers critical thinking classes for kids, teens and adults.

Imagine a basic foundations program that introduces the elements of critical thinking. Critical thinking principles, an introduction to logic and argumentation, an introduction to the psychology of belief and human reasoning, an introduction to persuasion methods, something on learning how to learn.

The program would offer lectures and exercises and training resources and group activities. Students would progress through a learning sequence and master more complex skills as they advance.

And you’d need some equivalent of grappling, or sparring, somewhere in the program. Some way of stress-testing your critical thinking skills against real people. Try to make a case for a position and let a small group of peers kick it around, poke holes in it, force you to defend it.

Then with the foundations under your belt you could take more specialized classes. An argument master class, a persuasion master class. A special topics class: reasoning about ethics; reasoning about probability and uncertainty; reasoning about decisions and decision-making; critical thinking about propaganda and power.

Maybe in my school I do my thing, and in Florin’s school around the corner, he does his thing. Maybe he’s an expert in areas that I’m not, so it would make sense for him to offer special classes in those areas.

What if there were a bunch of independent critical thinking studios like this in the city?

Is There a Market For This?

I know this sounds like a fantasy, but sometimes you need to let yourself fantasize to see if there’s a viable idea hidden somewhere.

One objection is that there’s no evidence that there’s a market for this. No one is lining up to say “Take my money, I want a critical thinking studio in my neighborhood”.

Maybe so. But markets don’t just always appear on their own. Sometimes they’re created.

Maybe it’s true that there’ll never be a market for this like there is for martial arts schools. Martial arts addresses very basic human needs. Health and fitness. Confidence and self-defense. We see action stars in movies and tv, we see boxing and MMA on tv, that people want to emulate. Martial arts training appeals to fantasies of power and self-mastery.

What Fantasies Would a Critical Thinking Studio Appeal To?

However, when I talk to people about this idea of a critical thinking studio, organized like a martial arts school, it invariably gets a positive reaction. Maybe it’s tapping into a different set of fantasies.

We’re attracted to thinking of ourselves as smart, informed, verbally dextrous, and confident in our ability to express ourself and defend a point of view.

Some in the media have drawn attention to the popularity of what has been called “competence porn”. These are tv shows or stories centered around characters who are conspicuously good at their job, when their job involves thinking and problem-solving of some kind. CSI shows, lawyer shows, eccentric super-detectives like Sherlock Holmes, or the medical version, House; problem-solving heroes like Matt Damon in The Martian.

Then there are icons of wisdom. Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Yoda in Star Wars. You won’t be surprised to learn that as a kid I had a poster of Yoda on my bedroom wall, not Luke Skywalker.

And there are icons of uncomfortable truth, of unmasking, of revelation. Morpheus in The Matrix movies offers Neo a choice, to see the world as it truly is, or to return to a state of ignorance, of slavery. People are attracted to the power that knowledge brings — the power to unmask, to pierce through the veil of appearances and reveal an underlying reality, even if the reality that is exposed is disturbing.

The attraction of these skills is real. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the market for a critical thinking studio, an “Argument Ninja Academy”, is much bigger than we may initially think.

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One thought on “Lessons We Can Learn From the Popularity of Martial Arts Schools

  1. I think you’re absolutely right about the need for the ANA (careful).

    Reminds me of the two shoe salesmen reporting back from India. First says: There’s no market, nobody wears shoes. Second says: The market is huge, nobody wears shoes!

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