Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Black Belt Curriculum: The Culture Gap

All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year.  Not all bits have equal value.
                                                                       -Carl Sagan

            When we examine the ways in which the world has changed in even the last 20 years, there is one overriding theme that stands out from all the rest: the advancement of technology.  More specifically, we have seen huge advancements in area of Information technology, or IT.  We have moved continually away from a purely Industrial or Mechanical Age, and into the Information Age.  Some have even said we have moved beyond the Information Age, and now live in a Connected Age, or a “Big Data” Age.  Businesses that do not have a website have become an oddity, and both businesses and individuals who do not have accounts on Facebook and Twitter are becoming more of a rarity as well.  Information is readily available not only from radio and television, but through computers and mobile phones as well.  We live not only in an age of information and technology, but of readily portable information and technology.  Information is literally at our fingertips anywhere at any time.  The World Wide Web only became available for public use in 1991, and only truly became a ubiquitous presence in the 2000s.[i]  Already, though, it has had a profound impact on the development of modern culture.  It has shaped the way we view the world, the way we communicate with one another on a day-to-day basis, and the way we make decisions.  We live in an era in which people are becoming more likely to text one another than speak over the telephone, in which they can create entirely new personalities for themselves in virtual worlds, and where “friends” are measured as an online numerical statistic rather than through true interpersonal relationships.
            Why, though, is any of this important when considering the development of a black belt curriculum?  If we are to reach our black belt students in a meaningful way, and if we intend to help them develop the qualities of a good black belt, then we must first understand the world in which they live, the societal forces that help to shape their decisions, and the ways in which our own curriculum and traditions are at odds with this larger culture. Conversely, though, we must also find new and innovative ways in which we can embrace this culture of Information Technology and keep our black belts interested in philosophies and practices that are firmly entrenched in our past.  Only by identifying and isolating both the best and the worst characteristics of our modern society can we hope to develop methods that will work to keep our art alive in the hearts and minds of our next generation of instructors and masters.

The Culture of Information: Understanding the Negative

            For many years now, critics of modern culture, and particularly critics of American modern culture, have stated that one of our greatest problems is that we live in a world of “instant gratification.”  This problem has only increased with the advancement of technologies geared towards exactly this purpose.  Information Technology has yielded to Gratification Technology.  If someone wants to hear a particular song, it can be downloaded in an instant.  If a particular television show or movie is desired, it is now available “On Demand.”  Money can be accessed instantaneously with a plastic card and a few button presses.  If one desires information on virtually any topic imaginable, a simple web search will yield thousands, and sometimes even millions of instant results.  Rewards are available and immediate; they require no real effort to receive, and when they are removed, we see an increase of anxiety and other negative emotions.  Unfortunately, while this culture continues to grow, it is ultimately damaging to its own members.
            In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the now famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, in which children were given a marshmallow and were told that they would be given another, but only if they could wait to eat the first one for a predetermined period of time.  It was found that while only a small minority ate the first marshmallow immediately, out of 600 children, only one third were able to defer instant gratification long enough to receive the second marshmallow. Follow-ups to this experiment were then conducted in 1988, 1990, and 2011.  In each follow-up it was determined that those who were initially able to delay their impulses for instant gratification in the original experiment became more successful later in life, and that the characteristic demonstrated in the original experiment remained with the individual in question throughout their life.[ii]  The ability to delay gratification in order to ensure future goals are met may be threatened, though.  If this experiment was reconstructed from scratch today, with an even greater number of participants, what would it say about the impact of technology on our society?
            Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Marilyn B. Benoit believes that the ability to delay instant gratification, what she terms “Frustration Tolerance”, is being diminished by the availability of today’s Information Technology, and that, in turn, the future success of today’s children is being compromised.  In her article entitled The Dot.Com Kids and the Demise of Frustration Tolerance, Benoit says:
“I do think that we should be mindful of some of the negative impacts of our new technologies.  As with all technological advances, these are unintended consequences which should raise some concern, especially at a time in our history when parents are spending less time with their children, and do not serve as much of a protective function as they once did.” [iii]
She then goes on to say:

“I contend that the combination of decreased parental protection and increased instant gratification changes the psychology and undermines the socialization of the developing child. When frustration tolerance is not acquired, modulation and management of aggression is compromised, and we see children like those who are now labeled "explosive" children. Excluding those children with neurobiological deficits, psychiatry describes such children as "narcissistic" and their explosiveness as "narcissistic rage." They are children who are unable to cope with the slightest of frustrations, and lash out aggressively. They are entitled, demanding, impatient, disrespectful of authority, often contemptuous of their peers, unempathic and easily "wounded." Their numbers are increasing. We must take note of this disturbing trend and intervene with some urgency if we are to raise children who will care about others in society.” [iv]

By extension, if we are to develop thinking black belts who will care about others in society, we, too, must take note of this trend and formulate strategies with which to combat its continued negative impact on our cultures, in both the macrocosm of national and world societies, and in the microcosm of our martial arts communities.  As things stand, we are confronted with students who believe that because they pay for lessons, and put in the minimum time required, they are automatically entitled to advancement in rank and all that goes with it.  When they are confronted with the necessity to wait for a desired goal or reward, they are immediately flooded with negative emotions, and choose instead to leave and seek out another studio or activity that will fulfill their need for instant gratification.
New studies even suggest craving for instant gratification through technology might be harder to resist than it seems at first glance.  A recent study from the University of Chicago suggests that the desire to check social media sites is actually greater than the addictions presented by alcohol or tobacco.  In a study of over 200 individuals, it was found that participants rated their desires to check websites such as Facebook and Twitter even higher than biological needs such as sleep.  Desires for alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, and other commonly accepted vices were actually rated comparatively low.[v]  This seems to be conclusive proof that we live in a new age; one in which technology has created as many problems as it strives to solve.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Benoit proposes a possible solution, and one that is intimately tied to our own ultimate goal: to become one with nature.  At the end of her article, Benoit tells us that:

“I have been fascinated by the role nature can play in developing frustration tolerance. Perhaps we can temper the negative technological impacts by taking children on excursions into nature where they can spend time observing the plants and animals, pondering the rivers and lakes, and marveling at the ocean.” [vi]

In essence, Dr. Benoit suggests that my meditating on different aspects of nature, one may be able to, to at least some degree, overcome the negative impact of technologies which promote instant gratification.  Meditation, reflection, and exposure to nature, then, are all aspects that must be included in a well-rounded Black Belt Curriculum.  These and other methods must be developed in order to fight the culture of instant gratification, and to help our students understand the value of achieving long-term goals with rewards that may be longer in coming, but are far more meaningful and satisfying.        
Not only does the influx of technology affect the mental health of our population, but it has been demonstrated to have a deleterious effect on our physical health as well. According to researchers from both Harvard University and the University of Chicago:
            “60 per cent of the extra pounds Americans have put on may be caused by a decline in the physical demands of work brought about by the arrival of computers and the like.  The other 40 per cent is due to technological innovation in agriculture which has driven down real food costs.” [vii]
They are not alone in this assertion, either.  Nutritionist, Chef and Exercise expert Andrea Cespedes says:

            “The role of technology in childhood obesity is not just a matter of speculation. More than 40 studies have been conducted on the matter, and many indicate that the availability of technology contributes to a sedentary lifestyle and weight gain in children. A Canadian study conducted in 2003 and published in the "International Journal of Obesity" linked 7- to 11-year-olds' television and computer use to a significantly increased risk to being overweight or obese. The study found that children who spent 3 or more hours a day in front of technology had between a 17- and 44-percent increase of risk of being overweight, or a 10- to 61-percent increase risk in obesity.” [viii]

We must combat not only the psychological impact of modern technology’s influence on our lives, but the physical implications as well.  When the driving force in someone’s life is to get to a computer screen, television, or video game console as quickly as possible, they will invariably be at risk for problems such as obesity.  A stress on physical activity both in and outside of the dojang must be another component of our black belt curriculum. Too many rote exercises and drills though will only help to trigger the desire for instant gratification, though, and that will work against us.  We must encourage a high degree of physical activity while still maintaining interest in our students and working away from the need for instant gratification.
                 All of the above is not meant to suggest that technological advancements represent some abstract evil that needs to be wiped from the face of the earth.  On the contrary, we can, under the right circumstances, make use of modern technology in ways that will help students develop the very qualities we hope they will one day possess. Even Dr. Benoit, while stressing that we should be mindful of the potential negative effects technology has on children, admits that “most of the effect of modern day technology is beneficial”.[ix]  To what degree, then can we add these beneficial aspects of modern technology to our developing Black Belt Curriculum?

The Culture of Information: Understanding the Benefits

            We must acknowledge that in addition to the bad, the modern Information Age has give us much that is good, and of immense value.  Communication between diverse groups has never been easier, and we are far more likely to be exposed to a multitude of concepts and ideas that we would never have experienced if we were cut off from the larger world. Families and friends who are spread part geographically can instantly share experiences through online chats, photo albums, and videos.  It has become much easier for us to reach larger audiences and deliver our own messages with the use of websites, email, and other Informational Technologies.  What we need is not a complete exclusion of technology, but rather a method of introducing a more balanced lifestyle in ourselves and our students. 
            The most visited and used website in the world is, and has been for quite some time, Google.  Google is a search engine that will return instantaneous results in a user-friendly format. Basically, you type what you want, and you get it.  This seems to indicate that people want information, and they know where to get it.  However, it is interesting to note that within the last few years there is one website that had skyrocketed to the number two position, surpassing many of the world’s most popular sites.  This site is, of course, the almost omnipresent Facebook.[x]  Facebook does not require you to search. Instead it brings information directly to you, based upon what you tell it you “Like.” In one click, hundreds to even thousands of students or prospective students will see your message.  At one time, it could be said that a dojang without a website was behind the times.  In today’s world, a dojang that doesn’t have a Facebook page is.
            Again, the reader may ask, “What does this have to do with a black belt curriculum?” Again, the answer is a simple one: Everything.  In order to adapt to the hustle and bustle of today’s families’ schedules, most martial arts studios have classes that last for an hour or less.  At one time, a class lasting this long would have been considered extremely short.  Classes when I first began training were uniformly two hours long, and would often run past the allotted time.  I am not suggesting that we are “soft” in our current training practices, though.  On the contrary, we have become more efficient in delivering our physical curriculum in less time to a greater number of students.  There is one major area that seems to be missing from the shorter classes of today, though.  Often, one of the first things cut out of classes that run for less than an hour is lecture and discussion.  This could be on any number of topics from philosophy, to training methods, to culture, to history, and is a critical part of any black belt’s development.  Try as we might, though, most of us fall short when trying to pack this part of our instruction into today’s shorter classes. Many of us have developed student handbooks, newsletters, fliers and other forms of paper handouts to be sent home, but how often do they reach our target audience?  They are just as likely to be left in the bottom of a bag or tossed in a drawer and forgotten forever as they are to be read and truly absorbed by our students.
            Today though, we have a better way to get our message across.  By posting short, to the point messages about what our students should be doing on sites like Facebook and Twitter, we can give subtle reminders without being present.  By posting photographs and videos of various classes, drills, and studio social events, we give our students a sense that they belong to something larger than themselves, and they are appreciated by their peers and seniors.  By posting links to relevant articles, videos, and other information online, we encourage our students to read and research.  By creating online knowledge games, we help our students to study and learn in creative ways. We are even able to create mobile phone applications that our students can download and use regularly.  Finally, by involving our black belts in the creation of suitable online content, we can help them to become leaders and at the same time bring them new levels of socialization and respect.  Today’s technology can be a blessing as much as it can be a curse, and, when properly used, can help bring a new focus to our curriculum.  We must learn to share the wisdom of the past by making proper use of the technologies of today and tomorrow.

The Culture Gap: Conclusions

            There is no doubt that the inundation of technology in our culture has had numerous negative impacts.  In addition, this onslaught of technological development shows no sign of slowing. We have moved from the Age of Information into the Age of Immediacy, and the need for instantaneous gratification is being ingrained into everyone who owns a computer, a mobile phone, or even a television.  It is becoming harder and harder to battle this growing need for immediate rewards.  What do we have to offer our black belts other than consistently increasing periods of time between promotions, less new material, and pressure to perform at levels that are up to our expectations?  This is a question we must both seriously consider and to which we must find our own individual answers.
            Some answers may be universal, though.  We must redefine in the minds of our black belts that which they view as rewards.  The desire for tangible things such as certificates, belts, and medals must be replaced with the knowledge that they are displaying increased levels of proficiency, and are being entrusted with new levels of responsibility that are of immense value to both the dojang and to the art itself.  We must not be afraid to praise our black belts when they deserve praise, and must strive to create opportunities for them to earn that praise.  We must impart to them the knowledge that by controlling their impulses for gratification right now, they are in fact coming closer to attaining even greater, if less tangible, rewards in the future.
           Finally, we must help our students to find the one thing that all parts of nature strive towards: balance.  In order to do this though, we must teach by example and strive for balance ourselves.  My instructor would often tell us that the line that separated the two halves of Um and Yang on the Korean flag represented “the path of the warrior.”  If we stray too far to either side of this path, we are losing sight of our goals and are straying from our true path.  This is as true in modern society as it was thousands of years ago.  If we do not learn to embrace the benefits that modern technology offers, simply because we are opposed to its negative aspects, we are unbalanced in our approach as teachers and role models.  We must seek innovation as well as adhere to tradition.  Above all, we must do what is best for our students and for the ongoing development of our chosen art.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

[iv] ibid.
[v] and-tobacco-local-experts-weigh-in/,, &