Started in 2004, the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut is the only college-level Martial Arts Studies program in the U.S. and possibly even the Western world. The curriculum includes classes such as “MA and East Asian Thought”, “The Dao of Business”, and “Psychosocial Aspects of MA”. They expect graduates to have an understanding of the philosophical and historical roots of East Asian martial arts. Also the languages and cultures of the societies from which these arts originated, and the impact of these MA upon personality and society.
Of course, they learn how to practice martial arts (MA) too. As they require each student to undergo in-depth and practical training of either Taiji, Taekwondo, or Japanese martial arts. Mark K. Setton, who teaches a variety of philosophy classes in the program, says while most students want to go on and become martial arts teachers, others enter the realms of law enforcement, security, nutrition, sports therapy, and so on.
“Most of them badly want to become teachers, so our emphasis has been on becoming a teacher with a difference.” he says. “They’re armed with the history, the philosophy, with lots of background knowledge.”
And there’s Chris O’Neill, who used his acrobatic and public speaking skills to become Japan’s first paid foreign ninja as part of a seven-person squad put together earlier this year to promote tourism in Aichi Province.
Setton says that there had been a martial arts presence on campus for many years. And department chair Yongbom Kim taught Taekwondo classes for eight years before they launched the program. The school also has a strong alternative healing program, including an Acupuncture Institute that offers master’s and doctorate degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Chinese Herbology.
“It was kind of natural for us to house the martial arts studies program,” he says.
When setting up the program, they noticed that most MA programs in East Asian universities focused on the physical component. But the school wanted to have something that taught both the practical and theoretical sides of MA. That’s why they decided to call it Martial Arts Studies.
And that’s why they invited Setton, who has a Doctorate of Philosophy in Oriental Studies, to co-chair the program with Kim. Kim represents more of the practical side as his PhD is in Physical Education with a focus on MA.
“Martial arts has a rich philosophical background,” Setton says. “[Having me join] indicates the emphasis we wanted to put on the humanities dimension of MA.”
Setton compares MA in the U.S. to the development of yoga, where it has gone from a “very philosophical and religious exercise” to being mostly focused on physical strength, growth, and wellness.
“To a certain extent, the same thing happened in martial arts, and its philosophical roots became weaker.” he says. “We’re trying to strengthen that component.”
Setton believes that the program is a “perfect blend” of the two sides. It is becoming more diverse with the addition of kinesiology and healing components. Students have their preferences, and Setton has heard from a rare student who simply shows no interest in philosophy. But he says most become pretty involved in both sides.
Interestingly, he has found that the ones who want to focus on the theoretical side have more interests in the more internal, healing aspects of MA such as Taiji when it comes to the practical component.
Most U.S. university programs focus heavily on intellectual growth and expansion of knowledge. Setton says the Martial Arts Studies program also emphasizes self-cultivation and personal growth. Setton himself attended a Confucian university in Seoul for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And how martial arts transformed from combative or defensive system to a mode of self-improvement really fascinates him.
“Traditionally in East Asia, higher learning is about self-transformation.” Setton says. “Many of our students talk about the sense of becoming a different person. That’s the gratifying thing.”