What is a black belt? An analogy

What is a black belt? An analogy

The following is cut and past from an article published by Steve Pearlman, Ph.D., Praxis Martial Arts, Canton, CT.  Here is a link to the original article.


In this blog, I take up an issue to which many have spoke before and to a question that endures because it is a question to which no definitive answer exists: The question of a black belt, or the equivalent level of achievement for those styles that don’t award belts, per se, eats up considerable discourse in martial forums, often typified by statements that begin something like this: “A real black belt would …”

As a martial arts teacher who awards a “black belt,” I struggle with what “a real black belt” needs to be.  What should I expect a blackbelt to be able to do?  How should we as a community to view someone who attains their first dan?  Where does a black belt sit on the spectrum of martial arts achievements? Of course, any definitive answer depends on teacher and style, and the nature of a black belt therefore will always, and probably should always, vary.

But it seems certain tacit expectations nevertheless surround a black belt.  For example, should a black belt be someone who is skilled in self-defense?  Should a black belt be able to defeat the average Joe?  What percentage of a system should a black belt be able to apply?  Should a black belt be able to defend against armed attacks? Frankly, there are too many questions to answer.

Any efforts to answer those specific questions seem problematic to me.  For example, the most common one, as far as I’ve seen, concerns the black belt’s proficiency in self-defense.  I think the general public, if not many members of the martial community, hold an expectation that a “BLACK BELT” can fight exceptionally well.  I suspect many of us have heard the whispers that we “should not mess with so-and-so because he or she is a black belt.”  And yet, many black belts I see, though certainly not all, lack truly formidable self-defense skills.  I say that as no criticism.  Rahter, my point here is to question if such skills are, in fact, a necessary qualification for a black belt.  Addressing that issue sucks us into the rabbit hole of what constitutes “self-defense” and what does not, and I dare say that we all won’t see eye to eye on that any time soon. (Remember, how well we can defend ourselves depends a great deal—read: entirely—on the size and skills of our opponent.)

So if we cannot really answer what defines a black belt based on measures of self-defense, and I think we’ll run into equally troubling measurements if we try to identify it by number of techniques or hours spent training, then what can we use as a marker for a black belt?

Let me tentatively, hesitantly offer this analogy: Is it useful for us to consider a black belt as the martial equivalent of a high school diploma?  That diploma arguably graduates the student into adult society, with the implication that the graduate possesses the needed skills to function independently, e.g., get a job, move out of the parents’ house, have some kids, etc.

As a cognate, the black belt signifies entrance into the “adult” world of that martial art.  The black belt expectedly possesses a strong enough foundation in essential skill sets that they can function in the society of tae kwon do, or jujitsu, or karate, or Choi Li Fut, etc.  This means that a black belt signifies readiness to move onto adult things and higher areas of study.  Just as a high school diploma represents qualification for admittance to college,[i] so does a black belt signify the right to engage advanced study in that particular style.

Thus, though a black belt is not yet advanced in and of itself, those untrained in the arts, those looking from the outside, might be impressed by a black belt in much the same way a high school diploma seems impressive to the grammar school student. But as skilled as a high school graduate might be in chemistry (or Wing Chun, or Shotokan, or Hapkido), no one with a PhD in chemistry is going to see a high school level of skill as impressive.  Important?  Yes.  A good initial foray into the world of chemistry?  Absolutely.  But impressive?  No.  In fact, no one with a PhD in chemistry would consider a new high school graduate to be “a chemist.”[ii]

To continue the analogy, then, for those outside the martial arts community, a black belt probably sounds impressive. (And it’s always an achievement.)  They are likely to consider a black belt to be an expert of some kind.  Thus, a black belt in tae kwon do would be a tae kwon do expert to the non-TKD layperson.  But for those of us who’ve been in the arts a long time, for the 5th degree blackbelt in TKD, a black belt is hardly an expert.

Just as no PhD in chemistry considers a new high school graduate to be “a chemist,” and just as no one who is 45-years-old thinks 18-year-olds know [expletive], so does no 5th degree black belt think a first degree black belt knows anything but a toehold on the basics.  In no way is this a denigration of the very real achievement that is the earning of a black belt.  It is real.  I remember the day I earned one (too many) years ago.  Most people do.

But I wonder if it is useful to conceptualize the black belt as I have, as a high school degree, which might mean different things in different schools and styles, but which never signifies anything close to mastery.  And if a black belt is equivalent to a high school diploma, then we might think of a college degree as a third degree black belt, a master’s degree as a fourth degree black belt, and a PhD as a fifth degree black belt.

And if we can liken 5th dans to PhDs then we should remember most of all that a PhD represents a beginning of research rather than an end, and that PhDs go on to do their most meaningful work only after they get hooded.


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