Schools Out!

Schools Out!

 Posted by Susan Shand on January 2, 2013 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (2)



It is traditional, in Japanese arts, to have different “schools” within which students learn their craft. This comes about because once the practitioner is declared a “Master” of their discipline they are answerable to no one and free to establish their (paying) business as a teacher according to their own lights and methods. This pattern stems from the Buddhist clergy structure, particularly in this case, of the Zen Masters; prior to that of the Hindu Guru system. It assumes the unassailable and unquestioned rightness of the Master and demands the unquestioning obedience of the student. In order to be declared a “Master”, in the Buddhist priesthood and the well established arts and crafts, students must be declared publicly to be so by an existing Master; who can in turn demonstrate his own right to pass on that privileged title.


In the west our schools of arts tend to a more egalitarian grouping of concensus thought which come and go with the shifts of fashion and ideology. They tend largely to be a looser collection of people who may group together under a common banner, sometimes with a teacher at the forefront – but often not. Rembrandt, for instance, ran a school in which apprentices paid for the privilege of learning his techniques. His students largely reproduced his style without much innovation or difference in their own work from that of their teacher. Apart from a notable few, their names are now lost to posterity. The Post-Impressionists however, were a loose group of artists working in a creatively co-operative way to a near consensus of aesthetic agreement but with a great deal of individuality displayed in the resulting art-works. Their names are known and their individuality immediately identifyable even though it is still possible to identify them as a definitive group. We might also mention the Lakeland Poets as a good example of this kind of loose consensus grouping.


There are already in existence western schools of haiku, along with the miriad of associated disciplines of senryu, renga/renku, haibun, haiga, etc., which have grown up within the larger community. They tend to follow one of the writers who have published definitive guides in English. The AHA! community is one such which serves a wide section of writers of different abilities in a supportive way. I personally, am of the Higginson school; although that is less of a school than a mindset, in the loose consensus style. There are others. The newly emerged (and what we might call in the absence of guidance simply the…) “Hokku” school has an undeniable ethos in the Master/Guru style.


I imagine it is because the discipline which we enjoy to practice originates in Japan, that some westerners have found it rather expedient to assume for themselves the Japanese priviledge of the title of “Master” and to claim for themselves (obliquely or overtly) Mastership of their practice. Along, it seems in some cases, with the authoritarian and unassailable right to define for everyone else what is or isn’t correct and acceptable in practice.  Personally, I think this is taking cultural shift rather too far, but you must make up your own minds on this point. It is rather dishonest of them, in my view, to claim that they are “all students” whilst at the same time making strong definitive judgements on a novices work which makes it very clear that what they say goes. Their refusal to defend their position in discussion with their peers; their absolute self-protection against argument and dissent – or even legitimate requests for clarification – is indefensible as a position. It lacks the integrity which we in this modern egalitarian age demand of our teachers; that they should expose their scholarship to the scrutiny and debate of their peers and be prepared to defend it. Of course, should one of these self-proclaimed ‘Masters’ believe that they are without peer, then that would give them an excuse not to engage in dialogue with any one. Nevertheless, we in the west do not recognise or buy into the unassailability of the Master. We are not Japanese, we are free and educated people who want to develop our own creative abilities. We need teachers who can teach creativity – not merely enclose us in a rigid set of rule-bound chains of false dualisms, undefined definitions, unexplained terms, and pseudo-mystical cultish responses. 


I would encourage anyone interested in learning any creative discipline to be very wary of any self-proclaimed teacher who pulls the “Its my way or the highway” card. You cannot develop your own creative capacity or your own instincts for Japanese aesthetics under the iron rules of a Narcissist. They are never there for your benefit. What you will learn will have to be unlearned before you can develop your own voice. …and after all, the voice of a poet is their signature, just as the brush-strokes of the artist is theirs.



(stardate 20130102)


2 thoughts on “Schools Out!

  1. Reply
    geaneditor 07:04 PM on January 02, 2013
    A very well presented argument that seems fair to me. Susan, you detail some of the apparent, at least they are now, dichotomies present in the Western understand of the role of the sensei. You have the courage of your own convictions, Susan, and I admire that. Succinctly put.

  2. Susan Shand 08:24 PM on January 02, 2013
    Thank you Colin. I wouldn’t mind learning from someone who called themselves “Sensei” if they were legitimately qualified as such in that particular discipline. I don’t think there are many of those about. In Japan there is a whole social structure in place to ensure that teachers really know their craft and how to teach it. That simply isn’t present in the west and I’m not sure that it is an appropriate learning environment in cultural terms for western students in any case. When you have westerners claiming for themselves an authority which is not backed by the centuries of scholarship and cultural understandings, or even the transmitted authority of one legitimate teacher from that tradition, then you have crossed the boundaries of both cultures, with contempt. In my view. This whole debate around the boundaries of cultures is one I will no doubt be returning to in future blogs.

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