It's a question that's been, and continues to be asked frequently since the spread of martial arts to western countries over the last century. Whilst some nations include a martial arts based curriculum in schools, others still view them as an outside interest, or even a danger to young minds. 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;
- physical fitness; martial arts training covers a multitude of physical development including balance, co-ordination, muscle tone and flexibility. Since martial arts are a lifelong pursuit they ensure longevity in maintaining a body fit for purpose well into old age;
- mental wellness; many systems reflect the esoteric moral qualities emphasising focus and discipline, two things vital to a child’s development. Martial arts are known to help with memory retention, problem solving and most importantly self-control helping to counter some of life’s emotional growing pains.
- you’ve heard the cliché martial arts are more than just about kicking and punching but also a way of life. Martial arts can help build a child’s confidence to achieve resilience in dealing with adaptability.
- martial arts offer an alternative to more traditional sports such as football or soccer.
So why don’t more schools teach martial arts?
MARTIAL ARTS AND VIOLENCE
Perhaps the most common misconception is that they encourage violence especially in children. Children like to play fight, after all it's a healthy part of growing up but there has been concern that teaching them to fight might result in unintentional but serious harm at play time. Should a serious fight break out children might use their new-found skills to pound on each other, and even bullies may become more efficient and dangerous 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 negative 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 prefecture high school and practitioner of Shorin-ryu Karate, considered the father of modern karate.
Itosu Sensei wrote a letter in 1908 to the Okinanwan 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 which led to Karate being 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?
CULTURAL FACTORS AND EXPERTISE
For 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. Those that don’t share that connection view martial arts as interests and hobbies or even fads - remember Bruce Lee popularised martial arts so much the term 'Kung Fu Craze' was used often in the media. This view of martial arts as a populist craze may have kept out of so many schools especially in the UK. These aren't the only stumbling blocks and to understand more I spoke with a few senior instructors. In generally they felt 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. Which one would you pick as the more suitable? 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 that would prevent students from being able to meet their assessment criteria. However other nations have found a way and so for a solution to these issues the UK could look there.
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, with club politics mixed in with populist conservative politics and a perception of martial arts popularised by entertainment. Yet other countries have managed this, and now it is ingrained in their culture. Perhaps we should use their example, and whilst it does present some challenges Martial Arts as part of a school curriculum could better prepare students for the world and offer more of a variety where a conventional PE curriculum falls short.