Storefront Debate

A strip mall in Wynantskill, New York, United ...Image via Wikipedia
Watched a documentary about the life of Bruce Lee last week, it still haunts me. Not for any of the clear reasons it should - a man mysteriously dies at the height of his life's work without foul play - but for one little section.

When Bruce Lee moved, wherever he went, he always opened up a school somewhere to teach others his particular style of martial arts. The school was always in a storefront, somewhere we might call a strip mall today, and it was unlabeled and unnoticeable unless you were seeking it.

Lee would teach a few hand-picked students, and the only way to get into the training was if you were recommended by a current student. This way he kept his school small so he could spend ample time with each student and be assured they were understanding the art correctly (read: by his philosophy of what it should be, do, and accomplish).

This struck me as an amazing parallel to the Ancient Athenian Sophists, teachers of debate, argument, and rhetoric  but also hired guns who would write your speech for you if you paid. They took students on a purely for profit basis - well, that's what we teach anyway - but the documentary made me think of them and their methods. They were always teaching rhetoric and argumentation, and probably had good reasons outside the paycheck for doing so.

For me, I would love a halfway point between the two. There's a lot to be said for being outside of the University setting, about as much as can be said for being in it. The advantages and disadvantages to it are a pretty equal stasis point, in my mind. But the more compelling part is the storefront. Imagine debate schools like storefront martial arts studios where people pay to learn the art of verbal self defense. Imagine an internal ranking system - something like a cross between the martial arts belt system, and the Toastmaster's ranking system. Imagine students referring other serious students for debate training. And the tournaments would be something very different, very strange to our eyes.

Is there a demand among people to learn how to defend themselves from words? Words are quite sharp; sharper than many think. Even the most ardent handgun enthusiasts think requiring safety courses before purchase is the right thing to do. At least with guns, you either survive or you don't - with words you just slowly rend, day in and out, for an interminable amount of time (assuming something said really hit you like an assassin would). With the violence of words, it's unclear whether you survived, or you didn't. You're different, and you're here. Maybe.

I think I was born in the wrong era - at least that's what someone said to me when I proposed my storefront debate idea. Maybe so; I do consider myself a Sophist, however you wish to define it. I teach it to pretty much anyone who comes along, and it's not just profit driven. But why is it only in the University? Why only in the schools? Perhaps debate masters and practitioners should reflect on why outside of Japan, it's only a small number of people who have access to martial arts courses in the University setting. Maybe they figured out something we haven't realized yet.
Enhanced by Zemanta