St. Olaf College | News

Course explores Eastern philosophy by blending liberal arts, martial arts

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Danny Muñoz-Hutchinson (left) demonstrates a technique during his "Zen and the Art of Judo" course.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy Danny Muñoz-Hutchinson (left) demonstrates a technique on his assistant, Nick Hodge ’15, during his “Zen and the Art of Judo” course.

Not many classes award students a yellow belt by the term’s end, but in Assistant Professor of Philosophy Danny Muñoz-Hutchinson’s Zen and the Art of Judo course it’s as fitting as a letter grade.

Pairing martial arts with intellectual discussion, the St. Olaf College course takes a hands-on approach to philosophy by teaching students beginner judo techniques alongside essential Zen Buddhist texts.

Muñoz-Hutchinson developed the course with the intention of opening St. Olaf students’ eyes to philosophical issues through an approach that transcends traditional Western practices. The class is in line with a nationwide movement to engage students with Eastern philosophies long overlooked by university departments (although even within that trend, few move discussion from the classroom to the wrestling room in the way that Muñoz-Hutchinson has).

By offering courses that push traditional definitions of what should be studied as philosophy — and furthermore, how it should be studied — Muñoz-Hutchinson hopes to encourage students to diversify their understanding of life’s deepest, and most universal, questions.

“Through studying Eastern philosophy, students can gain invaluable insights about the Western philosophical tradition that would not have been obvious had they been philosophizing within the Western philosophical tradition alone, as well as learn the philosophical doctrines of the Eastern philosophers themselves,” says Muñoz-Hutchinson.

An Eastern way of learning
This difference was immediately apparent to this year’s students. “A typical philosophy class would consist of a brief lecture followed by a careful discussion of the assigned reading,” explains Greg Gianopoulos ‘16. “In Zen and the Art of Judo, we spend most of class physically learning and practicing judo, but we also have the opportunity to study the philosophical underpinnings of judo and related Buddhist ideologies.”

Students from an array of academic backgrounds signed up for "Zen and the Art of Judo."
Students from an array of academic backgrounds signed up for “Zen and the Art of Judo.”

And participants can attest to the course’s success. “Academically, this class really threw me for a loop,” says Steph Hagan ‘16. “In Western philosophical culture, intellect is revered and often considered the fundamental way to access truth. On the converse, Zen Buddhism offers a very different portrayal of the intellect and reveals the inherent limitations of the logical mind. What happens when intellect can only take you so far, and something more like faith has to enter the picture?”

Judo offers a fascinating response to this question by calling for equal participation of the mind and body, rendering it in many ways more accessible to those who find Western philosophy limited.

“Students sometimes get the impression that being a philosopher means being a professor of philosophy, engaging in philosophical argumentation of the sort that professors engage in during class, at conferences, and in publications. However, this is not entirely so,” says Muñoz-Hutchinson. “One can be a philosopher — that is, a lover of wisdom — without being a professor, and one can philosophize — that is, pursue wisdom — without engaging in the kinds of activities that professors engage in.”

Blending physical prowess and mental discipline
As a martial art, judo calls for a unique blend of physical prowess and strong mental discipline that the students quickly learned to appreciate. Beginning with warm-ups and conditioning drills, the class spent the majority of the period learning and practicing judo techniques including throws, pins, and escapes.

“There’s something about the strength and intellect gained from judo that can’t be replicated in a class or weight room alone,” says Hagan. “In moving your body in a very organic way, and using another person’s size and strength to your advantage, you almost become habituated to anticipate and counter various difficulties you face and turn them into something positive — on and off the mat.”

The discussion portion of class was just as strenuous intellectually. Muñoz-Hutchinson presented his students with readings  by the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, along with Zen writings from ancient and modern sources.

“The discussion offered a critical philosophical perspective that supplemented the judo training,” says Gianopoulos. “Our learning was enhanced by experiencing judo through movement, but the Buddhist philosophy ultimately changed my way of life.”

Zen and the Art of Judo masterfully blends the martial arts and the liberal arts to create a learning experience that brings together the East and West, the body and mind, and students from an array of academic backgrounds.

“There is no other course at St. Olaf I’ve taken that has felt this way,” says Horacio Lopez ‘14. “We cover significant concepts in many other classroom settings, but rarely do we exercise them as we do in this class.”

Gianopoulos agrees: “I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to take this class. I see the potential of education in a whole new light.”