There have been questions with regard to the idea of the "master" and "mastery" floating around the internet in various forms for months. Being that I post quite a bit here about fencing and I am known by some, I thought it was time that I set the record straight as to what I think of the concept. Hopefully I will also be able to address some of the mysteries of this word and some of the ideas surrounding it, at least from my point of view. Please remember as you read that this is my own point of view.
Myself as a "Master"In some circles I am referred to as a "master" of what I do. I thought that it would be most useful to address my own position before discussing a more general pattern and thought process. In my particular case there are two times where I might be referred to by the title master. It will be noted that in each circumstance these are with regard to a specific field of expertise and are specific to the setting in which they are found. Neither has any claims of anything more grand or over-reaching.
The first title of "master" is within the Lochac Royal Guild of Defense, and this is as a Guildmaster, or Guild Master as the case may be. This is a teaching organisation formed within Australia as part of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) in which each rank is tested. This rank is an accepted level of competence in western martial arts, and more so as an established teacher and researcher of western martial arts. The important part here is that it points these individuals out as teachers, not necessarily as great fencers, even though each is in their own particular way in their own particular right. This title is for the most part only recognised within the SCA, and in many ways only in Australia.
In the second instance of the use of the title of "master" it is Master of the School of Historical Defense Arts (SHDA). This is a title adopted for the school to denote the highest rank in the school, and as an administrative title which could be easily replaced with President or Chairman or similar things. For the most part, however this is to indicate the head trainer of the school and in many ways I get tempted to replace it with a more Elizabethan title in "Schole Maister" in order to be specific as to what the title means. It means that I am the highest rank teacher in the school. Once again no claims of anything but being a teacher and researcher.
You will notice that in both instances the words "teacher" and "researcher" are present with regard to the title of "master" in both instances. I think that this is vital. I know I have much to learn, and I am extremely happy about this. Every practitioner should and must keep learning for many reasons, the main answer for all of them is that it is better for the practitioner and also better for others who the practitioner comes into contact with. I make no claims with regards to my titles other than those which have been presented here, and I am quite happy to discuss this if anyone is interested.
"The Master"Hopefully in this part of the discussion I may be able to shed some light on what it means to be a "master" of western martial arts. As far as I am concerned the following statement is accurate: A Master is a researcher and teacher. A Master is not necessarily the most excellent fencer in the world. Therefore the creation of a master in the community of western martial artists is an excellent thing. But this gives little explanation.
In the thoughts of the "general public" a master is an unbeatable, mysterious teacher, a possessor of mystic arts only passed on to dedicated and appropriate students. This is more related to martial arts movies than real expectations. This is one which has been crossed over due to many Eastern Martial Arts movies and even the Star Wars franchise. In these instances people who are referred to as "master" possess mystical martial and other skills and abilities not possessed by normal people.
The title of mastery states an expectation of a certain level of skill at teaching and also period of learning and teaching, nothing more. This is an expectation of time spent engaging with weapons, learning from manuals, researching forms and many hours of practice. It does not state any mystical ability, aside from the ability to pass on the skills of the weapons to others, which is a powerful ability indeed.
There are some western martial arts organisations which shy away from the idea of the title master in order to avoid the entire process. I think that this is foolish. These organisations have accepted levels, as above for mastery and every other level. If you are the head teacher and/or administrator of a martial arts group with a school-ish approach to learning and skill levels, why should you not claim the title? The attainment of this level does not imply any ability to sit back and finish your learning, but encourages you to continue in order that you can pass on more to your students.
How is it a bad thing to create a "master" if the level is pointed toward the teaching aspect? This merely recognises more teachers within the community, and more opportunity for students to learn and learn more. The possession of the title of "master" should encourage someone to do more rather than less, to learn more in order to keep ahead of students, and in order to teach the students more in order that they can be come better at their art. So some organisation creates a "master", how does it affect us anyway? If not over-reaching organisation? If not applicable organisation? If no expectations present? The only time a person should be concerned is where this organisation has the ability to affect what you do or what your school does.
The USFCA has created an historical martial arts mastery qualification. Firstly I live in Australia, so it does not affect me other than demonstrate a forward-looking approach and an attempt to create some pedagogy for western martial arts. Secondly I am not a member which is in any way affiliated with the USFCA, so it does not affect me. As far as I can see, so long as it is bestowed for continued and continuing teaching and researching it cannot be a bad thing.
Take a step back. Do some research. Have a look at what mastery means to you. Have a look at what becoming a master means to you. These are important questions that every western martial artist should look at. We as western martial artists need to stand up for teaching and research and things which encourage them. We should stand up for aspects which encourage pedagogical approaches to learning western martial arts. If this means making masters, based on demonstrated progression in a pedagogical sense, in organisations, then that is what we need to do. In my particular case as long as "masters" are created within the western martial arts community in order to promote the art, and they are given to people with demonstrated teaching and research I can not see it being a bad thing.