It is a question that has been and continues to be asked frequently since the spread of martial arts to western countries over the last century. Whilst some include a martial arts based curriculum in schools, others still view them as an outside interest. With so many countries packed with clubs offering instruction and training at reasonable prices which children can pursue in their own time why should it be a part of school life? Since a child spends much of their developing years (an average 25-30 hours a week) in school, the question really is, why not?
The benefits include:
So why don’t more schools teach martial arts?
Perhaps the most common misconception is that martial arts encourage violence especially in children. Children like to play fight, healthy part of growing up but there is a concern that teaching them to fight might result in some unintentional but serious harm at play time. Should a serious fight break out children might use their new-found skills to pound their opponent. Then there is the real worry of turning bullies into more efficient fighters.
Aside from the occasional anecdote there is no overwhelming evidence to support this tenuous link. Dr Chunlei Lu a professor of the Department of Teacher Education at Brock University in Canada wrote a paper called “Martial Arts, Violence, and Public Schools” which examines this perception.
After reviewing the extensive history and traditions of martial arts Dr Lu believes that modern westernised versions have de-emphasised the moral and philosophical focus in favour of a more aggressively competitive “win at all costs” attitude. Portrayal of martial arts in popular entertainment packed with violent and bloody outcomes fuel these misunderstandings of what martial arts are really about.
Citing various successful programs working with troubled children in violent neighbourhoods, Dr Lu concludes that to overcome such misconceptions there should be less focus on the combat and more on the Eastern spiritual and moral aspects. This echoes the philosophy of Ankō Itosu (1831-1915) a teacher in Okinawa’s first prefectural high school and practioner of Shorin-ryu Karate, considered the father of modern karate.
Itosu Sensei wrote a letter in 1908 to the Okinawan Ministry of Education with a proposal. This became the Ten Precepts of Karate (Tode JuKun) forming the basis of modern Karate. His letter laid out the framework for a simplified system emphasising physical and spiritual well-being and so Karate was taught in schools throughout Okinawa and later Japan. With such strong arguments as to their benefits and a working system available why do some countries still have no martial arts based curriculum in schools?
Countries which have a cultural and historical link to martial arts as with Taekwondo in Korea and Judo & Kendo in Japan, this is less of an issue. Countries that don’t share that connection view martial arts as interests and hobbies and therefore have no place in schools. Then there is they view expressed having spoken with some martial artists here in UK that a combination of club politics and being “spoilt for choice” over which style to teach, would make introducing a program difficult. The UK Government’s education department however gives a more pragmatic reason.
In studying for their GCSE Physical Education qualification students can choose activities (including amateur boxing) on which to be assessed by teachers and moderators. Martial arts are excluded because they require specialised expertise students would they would not meet their assessment criteria. For a solution to these issues the UK could look to a variety of successful programs across the world.
Since it was introduced in 2008 over 100 schools throughout the United Arab Emirates teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as part of their curriculum. Students learn theoretical principles including basic Portuguese alongside the physical training. UAE have now adopted BJJ as their national sport and are campaigning for its inclusion in the Olympics.
Though not necessarily widespread many US states teach Wrestling and Judo in schools. Kent state, a town south of Seattle, Washington is home to the oldest high school Judo program. George Wilson a sports coach at Kentridge High School helped establish the school’s first Judo class in 1955. This was in response to calls from the town’s Japanese/American communities for an inclusive activity with links to their culture as an alternative to baseball and football. Over the years the program expanded along with the school producing top ranked coaches and gold medallists with other states such as Hawaii using this as a model for their own school based curriculum.
There is no denying the benefits of martial arts to a child’s development both physically and mentally, so can the UK and other nations that haven’t already done so include martial arts training in their schools’ curriculum? The answer is more complicated than yes or no, and for the UK barriers like club politics, choice of style, make it even more challenging.
Perhaps we need to ask “should martial arts be taught in schools?” and in doing so pave the way to bringing martial arts to British schools adding to beacon lighting the way for others to follow.