Does a university education make any difference to your ability to learn a martial art?

posted in: Learning, Self development | 13


I got so cross with one of the black belts in my old dojo one time.

We were chatting with a vulnerable teenage boy who was at risk of being permanently excluded from school, and he said:

It’s ok anyway; education isn’t actually that important. I left school with nothing and I’ve done really well in my career.

bookWhy was I so irritated? Because I felt he was speaking in total bad faith. The reason he has a good job now, is because he’s self-educated himself like mad over the years.

He’s read, studied, and pursued learning opportunities both in work and outside – including decades of devoted, even obsessive martial arts study.

And it’s been really hard work for him.

So I was irritated that he was leaving out this part of the story, and simply telling an impressionable youngster that education isn’t important.

But when we discussed this later, it became clear why we disagreed. He viewed himself as having done well in life despite his lack of education. Whereas I saw him as having done well because of his strong commitment to his own education.

The reason for this difference, is that he was defining education as something that has to be formal, and administered by a school, college or university. Whereas I’ve come to see it as something that can be accessed pretty much anywhere and everywhere.

More and more, I see how learning a martial art can educate us – far beyond just learning to punch and kick.

I ran this idea by two of my dojo brothers in the car after training the other night, and they came up with a whole load of subjects you naturally study in the course of training. Psychology. History. Human Biology. Philosophy. Anthropology – and so on.

This is an interesting line of thought. But what I find even more interesting is the metacognitive skills we can develop through learning a martial art.

Nikkei Rio Expo – Apresentações de artes marciais by Rodrigo Della Fávera. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

What are metacognitive skills? Metacognition is thinking about thinking. So these are skills that we can apply to processing new information. Examples include: planning your learning; self-questioning; attention control.

A good university education can teach strong metacognitive skills, to prepare you for a lifetime of continuous learning (although a degree is sadly no guarantee of having these skills). These skills can often be more important in the longer term than the actual contents of your course. They can also make you a better martial arts student.

But you can also learn these skills in many other settings – including the dojo.

Chris Matakas writes:

I train jiu jitsu because I love jiu jitsu. But I also train knowing that my practice in this art will allow me better practice in any art. If you have learned one thing, you have learned all things, because you have learned how to learn. I can think of no more worthwhile pursuit of education.

So yes, I believe that a good education in learning how to learn is really important for learning a martial art.

But we don’t necessarily have to get hung up on where that education comes from.

Here are four things you can learn at university – or in a dojo – or in many other places – that will deepen and enhance your experience of learning martial arts.


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1. To respect and learn from the great thinkers of the past and present

skull-and-bookLearning from the past is fundamental to move into the future. 12th century philosopher Bernard of Chartres was said to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

At university you will hopefully be deeply, positively influenced by the profound thinkers you encounter on your course, whether they were teaching or writing in ancient times, or are still alive today.

Similarly, as a martial arts practitioner, you will ideally be encouraged and enabled to draw on the knowledge and wisdom of inspirational role models – whose teaching you can access through the physical training itself, and/or books and other sources.

Some (not all) practitioners are especially stirred by their own teacher’s lineage. But whether or not you take pride in your style’s own provenance, there’s an argument for quietly reflecting on the ancestors who developed the arts we study, often at the cost of great personal sacrifice.. As historical Ninjutsu researcher Antony Cummins writes (of the men of Iga and Koka):

They pushed the conventional limits and went beyond the required norm and perfected themselves on the darker path of clandestine warfare. Thus, we should take their teachings and forge them into positive ways for future generations […] Remember the people who lived this art for real, those who are now long gone.

Of course we need to approach the teachings of the past and present with a healthy dose of critical thinking (see below). But a spirit of respect and openness to great minds is important. As English philosopher and historian RG Collingwood said:

History is for human self-knowledge … the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.


2. To constantly ask “what works”

Here’s some advice from Canadian philosopher Brian Massumi, on how to read the complex writing of French thinkers Deleuze and Guattari.

[Don’t take their work as] a closed book that you have to take or leave […] The best way of all to approach the book is to read it as a challenge: to pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity […] The question is not: is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make possible to think?

Self Defense by Georgia National Guard. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Massumi is talking about philosophy. But he advises us to apply this principle to other disciplines. I could just as easily imagine many martial arts instructors saying pretty much exactly the same thing about training (albeit perhaps in slightly plainer English 😉  )

The starting point of the popular martial arts mantra: Does it work? is generally physical – the question is whether a technique can be used to successfully control, hurt or damage another person’s body. But it can run on other levels too, for example in thinking about ways to control your opponent psychologically.

It can also work at a much deeper, more subtle level. I know one Aikido instructor – Quentin Cooke – who sees his whole art as a metaphor – a powerful physical expression of deep truths about human relationships. So for him, the question “Does it work?” is more about whether a given technique can add anything to his understanding of human conflict or other interactions.

Either way, the point is that learning is an active, dynamic process, where we must bear Bruce Lee’s principles in mind:

Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own.

Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.


3. To learn critical thinking

Critical thinking is the art of analysing and evaluating issues, so that you can form your own sound judgement.

One core skill that universities aim to teach, is how to read books critically. Salisbury University advises its students to use seven critical reading strategies:

1. Previewing: Learning about a text before really reading it.

2. Contextualizing: Placing a text in its historical, biographical, and cuchessltural contexts.

3. Questioning to understand and remember:Asking questions about the content.

4. Reflecting on challenges to your beliefs and values:Examining your personal responses.

5. Outlining and summarizing:Identifying the main ideas and restating them in your own words.

6. Evaluating an argument:Testing the logic of a text as well as its credibility and emotional impact.

7. Comparing and contrasting related readings: Exploring likenesses and differences between texts to understand them better.

Most of us read martial arts (and other) books as part of our study, which is a great opportunity to develop these strategies. My sensei (who sees himself as resolutely non-academic – although I see things differently . . . ) heavily promotes critical reading strategies, with an additional layer of caution for translated texts. 

But this isn’t just about books – many other things should be read critically – or “deconstructed” to use the term of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who said:

It’s not purely linguistic, involving text or books. You can deconstruct gestures, choreography. That’s why I enlarged the concept of text.


“Everything is a text; this is a text,” he said, waving his arm at the diners around him in the bland suburbanlike restaurant, blithely picking at their lunches, completely unaware that they were being “deconstructed.”

This absolutely includes physical techniques, which Ben Spatz characterises as having the capacity to unfold indefinitely (to quote Cetina)

It also includes “reading” the behaviour of others (whether in sparring or in everyday life), advertisements, political speeches and so on.

We urgently need the skills to recognise misinformation, prejudice, manipulation and other unhelpful messages in the media and the world around us.  And high quality martial arts training and university education alike should teach us these critical thinking skills.

Indeed, Jesse Enkamp gives the following red flags as clear signs of a McDojo:

– Your sensei can’t explain the meaning of any given technique.

– You are rarely taught philosophical concepts, strategy or theory.

– The sensei is always right, everybody else are wrong.

– Questioning the style, teacher, lineage or dojo is a big no-no.


4. To become an independent learner

The biggest difference between school and university is often said to be the emphasis on independent learning.

The Alpha Omega Academy lists the characteristics of independent learners as:

  • Curiosity
  • Self-motivation
  • Self-examination
  • Accountability
  • Critical thinking
  • Comprehension with little or no instruction (“No matter the topic or subject studied, an independent learner will find ways to understand material through application (generally trial-and-error)”)
  • Persistence

As two Birmingham University students say:flower

You don’t have teachers running after you 24/7 to hunt down work. Lecturers give you knowledge that you somehow have to learn. You’re not taught; you’re given knowledge from academics that you have to learn.

The lecturers kind of set you in the right direction and show you where to go but it’s up to you to go and do the research.

Martial arts training at its best is the same. My sensei is fond of saying that his teaching is only a series of hints, through which we must explore and discover to develop our own understanding.

Many people will not naturally become independent learners by themselves. However, these skills can be taught – and learned. The dojo and the university are two places where independent learning should be highly valued – and where students can be given the structure and support they need to develop their skills.


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Conclusion – Do we need metacognitive skills to learn a martial art?

So if you are lucky enough to have gained a good grounding in metacognitive skills through your university – or your dojo – or both! – you should consider yourself blessed. Critical thinking skills are notoriously hard to teach and acquire, and having them gives you a definite advantage in life.

Jón Erlendsson writes:

The best learners are those who possess good metacognitive skills […] A person who constantly improves his/her [thinking processes] will eventually outperform others who do not work on improving their thinking skills.

But are these skills really needed for learning a martial art? I would say yes. Sure, you can focus only on passive learning of the physical side, without asking too many questions, or straying into the messiness of the philosophical, emotional or spiritual aspects.

But as DS Farrer and John Whalen-Bridge write:

Supposedly, people go to martial arts fend off attackers in the street, but practitioners know this is an inadequate explanation of the phenomena. (Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge, page 6)

There’s far more to studying a martial art than learning how to smash up other people’s bodies. There’s so much at stake in our training; and infinite stores of treasure to find.

And as with any form of knowledge, the best tools to access this wealth can be a simple love of learning, a permanent beginner’s mind – and a healthy array of metacognitive skills . . .

13 Responses

  1. Quentin Cooke

    I often wonder how many of my students give any thought to whatever I have taught in my lessons. Personally, some of my best learning takes place off the mat, when I am thinking about aikido. Sometimes it’s what I have experienced on the mat within a lesson ,that sparksme off, but more often than not it’s sparked by some everyday event.. I’m a great believer in putting the principles that martial arts teach into everyday life and then you can train and learn 24/7.

    Thanks for the mention Kai, but better still for highlighting an important and I fear often missed aspect of training.

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Quentin, yes, I am definitely find your approach fascinating even though (or because?) it’s so different from my own at this moment in time. It feels like your way of thinking about Aikido could open up so many doors; and as such, am pleased to highlight it to others!

  2. Fiona Kelty

    Hi Kai, thanks for writing about this very interesting topic. Lots of good references, as usual! I must read some of the books you mention.

    • Kai Morgan

      Thanks Fiona, I actually had you in mind at times while writing this, as you are such a strong advocate of critical thinking and reflection on Aikido 🙂 take care

  3. Joelle White

    Ohhhhh! Light bulb moment here. I always sensed that teaching karate to newbies and “first lesson is free” people when I was a teenager gave me the confidence to, later in life, home school my children. Now I see it runs deeper than self confidence based on prior experience. Every single metacognitive skill you wrote about came into play during the home school years – every single school day and applied to two entirely different children. And of course I had a dim sense that teaching home school has given me even more confidence to teach groups and individuals in Karate. Now I know why. Thanks!

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Joelle, yes you get it! I sometimes hear Karate colleagues with no post-compulsory education refer to themselves as “not clever” or “having no education” etc. But would tend to disagree, valuing things like interesting conversation, and passion for lifelong learning, and don’t think that these things correlate with having or not having a degree.

      Glad it struck a chord with you anyway! Yes, the skills and confidence you have gained from raising and educating your kids are truly valuable on many levels 🙂

      • Joelle White

        Yes – a passion for lifelong learning does not require a degree and definitely leads to great things 🙂 Speaking of a passion for lifelong learning, thanks for the link to my blog – sorry I didn’t catch it the first time around 🙂

  4. Cris Barangan

    I really enjoyed the article. My aikido sensei use to respond to spiritual questions, in this manner. ‘ I don’t teach you philosophy and we do not meditate in class. I teach you techniques, physics, tactics, anatomy, and psychology. Aikido will teach you philosophy.’
    Thank you for the good read.

    • Kai Morgan

      Thanks Cris – I take your sensei as saying that he or she didn’t want to get too bogged down in any overt, self-conscious “spiritual” approach, and preferred for the philosophy to emerge more organically / spontaneously from the training . . . ?

  5. Katy

    I really enjoyed this. You raised a very valid point about the value of non-formal education. We used to have a saying at my work, generally after something had gone terribly wrong, “every day is a learning day.” We may have halted our formal education but that didn’t mean we had stopped learning.

  6. Gunther

    I agreed with Quentin Cooke about learning about martial arts after the class is done because the instructor is not always going to explain the whys and how the techniques during class time and you are burning up class time with questions instead of doing the techniques. It is best to talk to the instructor after class when you have questions.

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Gunther, good to hear from you. Asking questions can be helpful, but it can also become a kind of procrastination. It depends on the teacher too – some love being asked questions in class, while others may be less keen . . .

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