Aikido has gone from a martial art taught privately to an extremely small group of students in Japan before WWII to a publicly taught art after the war and eventually in which active measures were taken to spread the art globally in a single generation. This effort was fantastically successful. Perhaps a million people world wide practice Aikido today.
What made this rapid growth possible was the development of a tier of teachers, not Shihan, not even mid-level but really entry level instructors who opened dojos and clubs all over the world. Most of us in my generation were running dojos at San Dan. It was not unusual for Non-Yudansha to find themselves running clubs or programs.
In the last forty years students of the students of the uchi deshi have begun to open schools. These are people who never trained directly under a Shihan level instructor for any significant amount of time. So now, in many communities there are multiple choices of styles and teachers. In Seattle, admittedly an extreme case, there are over twenty dojos in the immediate metro area.
I think that there needs to be a discussion of what the responsibilities of a teacher are in regards to his or her students. I think that the overriding mission that most teachers who have opened dojos have adhered to was that there was something fundamentally good about "more" people doing Aikido. That somehow they were missionaries going forth to convert the heathen and bring them into the fold.
It didn't really matter whether they were qualified to run a school... Maybe they were the only ones in the area from a particular organization or under a particular teacher. Since organizations exist to perpetuate themselves, of course such people were permitted, even encouraged to open their own schools. It was seen as better to have a school doing things "our way" albeit at a mediocre quality, than to have the student attend a dojo with a much more senior and skilled instructor from another lineage. So not only was growing Aikido a goal in itself but so was spreading the gospel according to ones own teacher or style.
I wish to question the idea that there is something inherently good about practicing Aikido at whatever level is available as opposed to doing another practice at a high level. Most Aikido teachers are content with their roles guiding the practice of their students as long as they feel they are better than their students and have something positive to offer. I would ask people if this is really true? If a student. by choosing to train with you, is passing up the opportunity to train with another teacher, of the same art or even a different art, aren't you actually short changing that student?
I would suggest that, as an absolute minimum, a teacher should be offering training that will allow his or her students to be as good (even better?) than that teacher is. If each person running a dojo or overseeing the training in some community center program or other were to honestly ask this question, what would the answer be?
I have come to the belief that in the majority of cases, the honest answer would be that no one in said dojo shows any sign of meeting or exceeding the skill level of the teacher. I think that in most cases, the teacher has become the limiting factor in the development of their student's Aikido.
I hear teachers talk about "falling standards" all the time. Tests are generally conceded not to be what they were 20 years ago, weapons work is not what it was, etc. While there is general agreement that this seems to be true, I think there is very little self examination on the part of the teaching community as to how they have created this situation.
When growth for its own sake becomes the overriding goal, when creating an harmonious and well bonded dojo community becomes more important than the transmission of the art, then there is a problem.
I have been around long enough to have seen a generation or two go fourth from their respective dojos and start their own places. Many of these people have established highly successful schools, lots of students, great spirit, beautiful facilities... But when you look at the student population of these dojos you see no one who is going to be as good as their teacher. You see people who have the potential. You see people putting in the time and effort. But you don't see the resulting progress.
I have seen tests performed by students at a given level that simply weren't in the ball park compared to what their teachers had done at that very same level. (Boy does that make me feel old when I have seen both teacher and student test for that same rank.) What would cause a teacher to accept far less from his or her student than they had achieved at that same point in their training? I simply do not understand? It's one thing to not know... it's quite another to know and not pass it on.
How many people running dojos have been trotting off to seminars with their teachers for decades and having no clue what these teachers were doing? Year after year... no real change in understanding. At what point do you ask yourself what it is that you are teaching? If you know it isn't what your teacher is doing, is what you are teaching worth while or not? Is there some inherent merit to passing in what is really not very high quality?
I constantly run into teachers who admit that their weapons skills are not what they'd like. Yet, these very same teachers are responsible for preparing their students to do weapons work on their tests. If they are not confidant in their skills, how can they possibly prepare others to be anything but inadequate? So the question is, why haven't they made acquisition of these skills a number one priority so that they can do their jobs properly? Have they invited skilled teachers to come to their dojos specifically to work on these skills? Have they sought out teachers who have the skills and traveled to their dojos? Usually, the answer is no. They bemoan the fact that there isn't more weapons training at the various seminars and camps held by the organization but do absolutely nothing to take responsibility for their own progress.
The economy has caused many smaller dojos a huge problem. In our area several have already closed their doors and moved into community centers. A number of others are marginal and their teachers actually have out of pocket to keep the doors open.
So the obvious question is, does that dojo NEED to stay open. Given how much time and energy it takes to run a school and minister to the needs of ones student population, combined with the ever present financial and time pressure which interferes with doing as much personal training as one would like (or professes to wish to do), wouldn't it simply be better to close the school and start training at another dojo with a skilled instructor? Isn't it really better for that teacher and the art itself to have that teacher go back to being a serious student full time than being a mediocre instructor of even more mediocre students?
I am often accused of taking an elitist position on these issues. But really... does anyone actually think that the Founder was envisioning a global community of martial arts mediocrities when he said that Aikido could change the world?
The bottom line is that it all starts and ends with the community of teachers. They are responsible to attain the highest levels possible in their art. Their are responsible for passing on that knowledge. A student with the will and the ability should be able to attain excellence at any dojo. If not, that dojo probably doesn't need to be there.
I have been to dojos where talented people were being short changed. Fifteen minutes away there was another dojo and a different teacher turning out top notch students. This particular dojo had no reason to exist and was actually, in my opinion, a detriment to the art. Taking people's time and money, and then not delivering is borderline fraudulent as far as I am concerned. Yet, there was no consciousness on the part of the instructor at this dojo of anything amiss.
I think the whole Aikido teaching community needs to take a hard look at itself. We need to ask ourselves if what we are passing on really represents something positive for the art and for the student. We need to be aware that every time we convince s student to train with us, he or she is choosing not to train with someone else. Do we really think we offer a quality experience that is as good or better than what that student would get elsewhere? Are we striving for quality or quantity? Are there people who simply shouldn't be training? Or do we think we should change the training to make it "accessible" to everyone? And what happens to the training of the people who could have been excellent if the training is made "accessible" to people who will never be excellent?
I once asked one of my teachers, after seeing a very poor yudansha test, who sets the standard for testing? He replied that it is the job of the instructors to set the standard. In other words, it is my job. No one is going to tell me. If I settle for less in my own training I am short changing myself and my students. If I allow them to be less than they are capable of, even if it means that I lose the students who don't have the commitment to go the distance, then I am short changing my students.
I absolutely believe that it is the teacher's job, his responsibility, his imperative, to not be the limiting factor in his own students' training. I think the whole Aikido teaching community could benefit from a bit of brutally honest self examination on this issue.
(Original blog post may be found here