InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Nov 2002
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Higher Education and the Martial Arts

By Joseph R. Svinth

Copyright © EJMAS 2002. All rights reserved.

Awhile back, someone wrote to say, "I’m going to college. How do I major in martial arts?" Although the question was presumably facetious, the purpose of this essay is to examine some ways of accomplishing just that.

Explaining a Major in Martial Arts to Dad

Parents are not always supportive of children going to college solely for self-actualization. Put another way, while Mom asks when you’re getting married, Dad asks, "What job are you going to get with this?"

Careers in which a combination of college and martial arts skill could be helpful (or even necessary) include:

Less directly applicable in terms of physical or philosophical applications, but equally useful in terms of cultural understanding, is academic and martial study leading to a career in:

Varsity Athletics

If you are talented in an Olympic sport such as judo or taekwondo, then scholarships may be available. San Jose State University is an example of an accredited university with a varsity judo program.

Some foreign universities also have varsity programs. For example, some Korean universities offer varsity judo and taekwondo, while some Japanese universities offer varsity judo and kendo. There are also varsity programs in China and Europe. These programs are extremely competitive, and presumably, exchange students require some skill in the local language.

Of course, most of us aren’t likely to star in the Olympics. Consequently, most people will have to settle for an intramural program. Nevertheless, don’t despair: Most universities offer a wide range of martial arts at reasonable prices.

Accredited or Non-accredited?

In most countries, the national government accredits universities. Thus, accreditation is not an issue. However, in the United States, accreditation describes the process that most colleges and universities voluntarily go through to ensure that standards remain reasonably consistent from one school or state to the next. Thus, one definition of accreditation is "peer review through a self-study process." [EN1]

As a rule, classes from one accredited institution are transferable to another. Consequently, classes from one accredited institution generally can be used to fulfill requirements at another accredited institution. The University of Texas maintains a list of accredited U.S. colleges and universities. Although this list only shows 4-year schools, you can follow its links to lists of accredited community colleges.

Acquiring and maintaining accreditation is a costly and time-consuming process. Consequently, not all colleges are accredited. [EN2] This does not mean that unaccredited programs or teachers are bad, it simply means that they are not accredited. That said, some unaccredited programs are bad. Examples include the so-called "diploma mills" that send you a degree in return for submitting the right number of box tops and pictures of Dead Presidents (e.g., U.S. dollars). [EN3]

Bottom line? If your goal is self-actualization or the desire to put initials after your name, probably any institution will do. However, if intend to use your training or degree for professional purposes, it is probably better if you attend accredited rather than unaccredited institutions.

Selecting a Program and Teacher

Whether accredited or non-accredited, different institutions offer different programs, and it is up to you to make sure that the program in which you participate suits your needs.

The first step involves reading the university catalog. The reason is that you could easily satisfy some core curriculum or elective requirement using any of the following courses.

In addition, if you like the instructors of these classes, then they would probably make reasonable faculty advisors.

Picking an advisor is no different from picking a martial art teacher, and Joel Hass has a spot-on essay about finding the right calculus professor called, "Exactly Who and What Is Your Instructor?" I mean, how can you go wrong with advice such as:

Bottom line here? Don’t pick an art (or a major). Instead, pick an instructor, and then take every class that he or she offers.

Some Accredited Programs

A handful of accredited institutions offer programs aimed specifically at martial arts students and teachers. For example, Indiana University offers a martial arts certification program. Indiana’s program doesn’t lead to a degree per se, but by the time you’ve completed it, you should be close to a minor in something. (Precisely what would of course depend on your course selection.) Likewise, Radford University offers a minor in Exercise, Sport, and Health Education that offers a martial art path.

Alternatively, you might select a university because it offers some other program that is exceptional. For example, if your interests include the East Asian martial arts, then you might want to attend a university that has an Asian studies program. Or, if your interests inclined toward dance, theatre, or stage combat, then you might profit from the programs offered by (for example) New York’s Hamilton College, Rhode Island’s Brown University, or Illinois’ Western Illinois University. Finally, if your passions include African or African American martial arts, then you might consider (for example) the programs offered by the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Look into non-culturally specific options, too. For instance, if your interests stress physical self-defense, then courses on criminal law, officer survival, and first aid could be useful. Florida State University provides links to accredited criminal justice programs. Meanwhile, Ohio State offers a degree in Sport and Leisure Studies. (A PDF file describing the program appears here.) In addition, there are kinesiology departments all across North America. A list appears here, but an example is the University of Western Ontario program, where the varsity wrestling team is national caliber and degrees are awarded up to Ph.D. Finally, if kung fu movies are your secret passion, then consider cinema studies. For example, in 1998, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offered a course called "Analysis of Screen Genre" that included an analysis of martial art cinema as a subset of fantasy.

Designing a Curriculum

Some universities specialize in individualized degree programs. Accredited examples include Washington’s Evergreen State University and New York’s Empire State College. Here Jerrold Borenstein describes how he designed his own "mind, body, spirit" curriculum for a degree from Empire State. However, in most cases, you will need to get with your faculty advisor and do some individualized planning.

Core curriculum (also known as general university requirements) should include selections from the following areas.

Possible concentrations for majors or minors include:


Depending on your goals, a college education can go hand in hand with martial arts training. Choosing an accredited institution may be necessary if you want others to accept your education credentials with little or no hesitation, but unaccredited institutions should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

To make the most of your program, you must take charge of your learning and your program. Whether you choose an accredited or unaccredited institution, choosing the right classes and instructors will greatly enhance your learning experience. To accomplish this, it is recommended that you sit down with a faculty advisor and design your own curriculum, as in this way, pen and sword can be in accord.


EN1. For a detailed discussion of what accreditation is meant to accomplish, see the Commission on Institutes of Higher Education’s discussion here. Note specifically Standard 4.40, where it states "Credit for prior experiential or non-collegiate sponsored learning is awarded only at the undergraduate level. When credit is awarded on the basis of prior experiential or non-collegiate sponsored learning alone, student learning and achievement are demonstrated to be at least comparable in breadth, depth, and quality to the results of institutionally provided learning experiences." In other words, an accredited institution cannot award graduate degrees for life experience.

EN2. For a discussion of why some quality schools might choose to avoid accreditation, see "The Official FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) v. 6.0" at Institutions attempting to teach non-traditional curricula face additional problems. For example, when Don Warrener tried starting a martial arts college in Hamilton, Ontario, during the early 1990s, he was refused "accreditation as a public or private school because the martial arts did not fit any existing educational category." See "Cultural Landmarks of Hamilton-Wentworth, Custom House" at

EN3. The following links will send you to descriptions of various unaccredited institutions and their Ph.D. graduates in martial arts. In my opinion, some of the schools listed could be considered diploma mills. However, to avoid legal problems, I will leave it up to the reader to decide which these are.

InYo Nov 2002