Opinion

Unlearn what you have learned about academese

Bruce Lee had a philosophy about fighting. Although loathe to try to quantify and stratify the world of martial arts, he believed that there were three general tiers a fighter would occupy in his lifetime.

In the beginning, prior to any training or conditioning, a normal person, pushed to fight, would fight not with skill or technique but through organic instinct. After receiving training, one would occupy the second tier, and while he would theoretically be a more competent and refined fighter, his natural battle instincts would be restricted—because according to his conditioning “x” block must always be used to defend against “y” attack, and one should always use this specific kick in this specific situation.

Those fighters who occupied the third tier resided in a space beyond terms like “mastery” and “black belt.” While having full knowledge of technique and theory, such a martial artist would not be bound by stylistic dogma in battle, and would have regained their inherent fighting instincts.

As Bruce Lee put it, “There is a subtle difference between ‘having no form’ and having ‘no form’: the first is ignorance, the second, transcendence.”

A dope philosophy, to be sure, but why do you care? How is this pertinent to the average Mac student’s everyday life? Yes, most of you aren’t jump-kicking and street-scrapping on the daily, but this three-stage classification system is surprisingly relevant to us and our scholarship, especially those of us involved in studying social intricacies and inequities.

[quote]Total adherence to academic terms can inhibit thought and communication that would lead to a broader, big-picture understanding. [/quote]

Before formal education in inherited disadvantage, privilege and unjust institutions, can anyone truly be an agent for positive change? Yes and no—mostly no. The raw passion is there, but one lacks the language to analyze and discuss the often incorporeal concepts of social justice. Worse still, well-meaning people can end up doing as much harm as good without the training and finesse needed to navigate difficult subjects. These people are on the first tier in Lee’s system: they have heart, they have strong instincts, but they lack skill.

Tier two: the consummate scholar. After much rigorous training, the practitioner now wields a mastery of terminology and technical knowledge. Just as a martial artist learns  exact kick angles and implementation theory, the scholar acquires a bevy of buzzwords.

This is the part where you learn to toss names of intellectuals and words like “hegemony” like jabs and feints. There can be no doubt that after having received training one has more tools and knowledge, but amidst all the lingo one can easily lose sight of how and why they even started fighting, can forget the instinctive, passionate flow they once communicated with.

Bruce Lee’s ultimate scholar would at once be well-versed in academese and yet not be restricted by it. While perfect for debates between elites, academic jargon can be hampering in real world situations. Total adherence to academic terms can inhibit thought and communication that would lead to a broader, big-picture understanding.

I think our collective hope as Mac students is that our education enables us to transcend barriers and spread knowledge and justice throughout society at large, and avoid being transformed into portly wizards of academia, forever dueling away in some distant ivory tower.

My best friend from home, a guy who never liked school but loves working on and racing cars, may not know what hegemony means, but, as a person of color, understands how and why banks, schools, and the media conspire to create a wicked web of institutional exclusion. Of what use is the word “ekphrasis” in conversation with my precocious and poetic younger brother, who only knows that he loves describing and referencing things through his writing? Terms of this type are useful insofar as they give name to feelings and phenomena, but they aren’t necessary to experience the feeling, or to understand the phenomena.

I believe that the terms and ideas we are saturated with in college are useful, as useful as knowing how to properly punch in a fight. But in learning how and when to punch, don’t lose your latent battle rhythm; don’t forget how, as a beginner, you once bounced, weaved, clawed and scratched, strove with a thirst for knowledge and blood that lacked reason yet held rhyme.

While we’re here, I want us to be putting in the work, meditating in a cave, training in the lab, practicing punch after punch, day after day. But ultimately, I’d like us to take it outside the dojo, to see how a few wickedly insightful jokes can sometimes say more about politics in America than a stack of textbooks, how pages of cinematic analysis can essentially boil down to “I liked it, here’s why.”

February 8, 2013

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