I want to talk about what progress in martial arts is really about. I'm going to talk a lot about the process of grading examinations, so before reading on, I want to let people know that I'm not weighing in to support either of the camps which might be characterised as "gradings are the only way to prove yourself" or "gradings are a modern fad which have nothing to do with real martial arts."
I am actively involved with 5 different martial arts. 2 of those have grading examinations built in to their structure. 1 has class-based assessment, also built in. 1 has examinations but they are optional and much in the background. 1 has no such system and you just do it. I have graded in some (they say I'm good at it), and not in others. I guess more than most, I've seen all sides.
I certainly appreciate that properly conducted grading examinations provide a check, and in the best schools an independent check, on progress, and offer some very important external validation to students, their teachers, and their schools.
Now, what I want so say, is this. "Is that it?"
If martial arts history were a day, the grading examinations as we know them now would have been around for just the last half hour. For thousands of years, martial artists were training in martial techniques, and over their lifetime in the martial arts going through the process of "from body, to mind, to spirit." For me, that's what martial arts was about before gradings came along, and what it is about still.
The transformation of a martial artist is more than external performance. It is also a process of self development, and ultimately self-realization, that can be achieved only by looking inwards. More than anything else, it is a gradual stripping away of the ego. Unlike performance, which can be taught to an able student remarkably quickly (one of my martial arts friends trained for a week and was awarded a black belt by a very well respected martial artist, on the basis of being able to do all the things required in that style), the stripping away of the ego is a slow process. It takes commitment. It takes dedication. It takes time.
We make a lot, as teachers of martial arts, of how the practise of martial arts is life changing. It's a common marketing theme. But if what we are doing is all about the performance, how is that changing someone's life? If people rattle through the grades without the commensurate change in their mindest, and indeed their personality, is that enough to really make them a "black belt"?
Though you don't have to take the grading examinations to study TaeKwonDo with LCTKD, it is fair to say that this particular, very modern, art, has a philosophy of grading built in to it. With this in mind, we have had cause to take a long, hard look at what exactly makes a "black belt," not only in the grading examinations, but alongside them. We have considered very carefully the relationship between the ability to perform well in grading examinations and the quest for self development. Some might call this the Yang and the Yin of martial arts.
We have considered the importance of external, and preferably independent, validation. We have also considered how too much emphasis on the examinations alone can make people look outside, and not inside, to themselves. Unless martial arts schools are very careful, they can end up colluding in the myth that peforming well for a few hours one afternoon somehow means people are "better" in all respects. Is it any wonder, with so much emphasis on performance and so little on person, that we find ourselves in the martial arts world surrounded by teachers who are arrogant, ignorant, and even bullies?
So what have we, at LCTKD concluded, and what have we done about it?
Of course, what and how you teach matters. We don't teach only an external syllabus of techniques, but also internal values. Questioning about those values forms a major part of our more senior gradings. But how do we ensure these are actually taken on, though, since people can just rote learn the answer they think you want to hear?
If someone is obviously not of the right character, we would not submit them for a grading examination. How to assess that, and how to instill it, are interestingly connected. We see it as a matter of time. Assessment of a person takes time. And self development takes time. Time in class with others, time with teachers, time in study, all matter. Not only does allowing a significant time between gradings give teachers a proper opportunity to assess someone's character, it also gives that person the time to develop. It's all about time.....
So we insist on strict rules about length of time between grading examinations, and on attendance hours in class between examinations. If you don't take the time, and don't attend the classes, your Instructor will want to question your dedication, will be concerned about your lack of respect, and won't have a chance to assess the development of your character.
As for you, will you really be able to perform well enough in your examination to get the next grade? Well, as the example of my friend showed, a physically talented person just might. But we won't enter you for the grading anyway, because whatever you can demonstrate externally, will not be balanced by the requisite changes inside. To become a complete martial artist worthy of the title, you need the dedication to match Yang with Yin.