Lately we have been watching a lot of Naruto Shippuden. This is the anime series that starts three years after the events of Naruto. Quick plot: they’re ninjas, in a society of ninjas, and they go on ninja missions and do ninja training and you can never expect what they’re going to pull off because they’re NINJAS.
So a while back I wrote a post about the Purpose of Education, and about what it does for the student, what it means for their life. And about why we might teach. Which also tied in, for me, to a large set of posts I wrote about how Science Fiction is important which, if I may, I will sum up in this quote from Among Others, which I am reading right now:
“One of the things I’ve always liked about science fiction is the way it makes you think about things, and look at things from angles you’d never have thought about before.”
-Jo Walton, Among Others
Okay, back to Naruto. In watching the show – especially in season 3 – there’s a lot of talk about learning, about studying Ninjutsu (ninja arts) and studying with a master. A lot about knowledge as power, which, when you’re throwing around crazy ninja powers, is a literal sort of adaptation of that concept. So let me talk through what I observed in the show, and what it tells us about the Purpose of Education!
Knowledge is Power
Naruto, and even more-so Naruto Shippuden (I will pretty much say Naruto to mean both), is full of people who want power, who want Forbidden Ninjutsu and to use all sorts of dark arts. These are generally the villains, although not exclusively.
There’s a lot of nigh-invulnerable, nigh-immortal characters; lots of resurrecting the dead to fight for you; lot of village-destroying power bombs. Necromancy, mass destruction, and immortality: all possible with ninjutsu, and some generally a blatant disregard for human life.
We see a lot of it, and a lot is plot-important, and it gets explored, but there was one scene in particular that got me thinking. It was a flashback, and one of the main villains – Orochimaru – is in a library-type room full of ninjutsu scrolls and teachings. It’s like the Restricted Section in Harry Potter – lots of dark secrets, some that could be used for good or ill, most better left forgotten.
Orochimaru looks around, and he wants it all. Wants to learn it all. And he realizes – he knows – it’s more than can be learned in one lifetime. In that moment, he decides to pursue immortality. He begins down some dark paths to get there, ostracizing his friends, and using his followers for his own purposes. Like, literally uses. He reincarnates himself inside the body of another – so he recruits strong followers, not to teach them or have them help him, but so he can inhabit the body of the strongest one. He is power-crazed and evil.
Okay, so let’s backup from Naruto for a moment. In our world, one lifetime is nowhere near enough to learn everything. Not even everything about one thing. So we specialize, because we have to. Even if we know a lot about a lot, or not much about not much, we’re still specialized to some extent. It’s inevitable. There’s no time for anything else. Hey, let’s quote some more science fiction:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
-Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
I knew the end of the quote – “Specialization is for insects” – but I kind of like the rest. It’s a ridiculous standard, something I feel like I understand increasingly as I get older. I also really like the Wikipedia page where I found the quote – I had observed this but not known it was a thing. In particular – the idea of the “non-specialist,” the person who is good at just about anything (they give a huge list, but quintessentially, James Bond) without showing us how they learned the skills… does it make sense?
Or would specialization make more sense?
Master and Student
So, I mentioned that Orochimaru doesn’t tend to have students – just disciples who, when needed, he turns into reincarnations for himself. However, on the good-guys side, we see a lot with master and student. There’s a lot of thought about the next generation, and how they will carry on with the world.
Which, when you’re facing off against immortals, it’s interesting to juxtapose the characters who are actively thinking and planning for a time when they are no longer around.
So all these ninjas, in the ninja world, learn – and then teach, it seems. They are young students, in a school together. Then they end up a squad of four, with one leading them, and three younger ones. They pass a test, can potentially lead a team of their own, but tend to still work with a higher rank ninja, who is even more focused on teaching them. Then they graduate on to the next level, the level of those who have been leading. And then they are the leader, the teacher.
They also all tend to specialize. There’s all sorts of crazy ninjutsu to learn – summoning, elemental, mental, illusions, transmutation… again, too much to learn. So we also see a number of more specifically two-person master and student relationships, along with the team-based learning. Some of them learn a lot from their parents and families, and have a family-specific, generally secret, style.
But then we have our Naruto, and his master, Jiraiya. This is the relationship we see the most of. And here we see the master, not only passing on skills and knowledge, not only mentoring and leading and traveling with the student, but even passing on hopes and beliefs and dreams to the student. Jiraiya puts his hopes and faith and dreams in the hands of Naruto, because he expects – indeed, is prophesized – to not be the hero himself, but that one day he would have a student who would be. A student who would bring about world peace.
So, cool plot for the show – I love a good prophecy. However, there’s more to the relationship than that, with all this forward thinking.
There is an expectation that the master will pass on everything they know (everything that matters? Everything they can?) to the student. By the time this is done, the student still has time left. Still has life left. Time to take everything their master was – and increase it. Improve upon it. And, time allowing, to become a master themselves one day, and pass it on down the line.
And it all clicked for me. The whole story idea, big in the Hero’s Journey or Kung Fu films, of the student surpassing the master. To which I now say, of course they do. They’re supposed to. That’s the point. It’s not to become a clone of the master. It’s to achieve all the master did, to learn and know what they do – and to move past it. To move knowledge forward.
And then to teach it to the next generation, and carry this process of continuing improvement forward.
So, we’re not ninjas dealing with ninjutsu and crazy evil men. Not like in the show, anyway. However, I think that’s important. With worldly, bodily immortality not an option, we can’t pursue that as our plan for knowledge. We shouldn’t. It’s selfish and unhelpful to horde knowledge and information like that. There are power-driven people who do, but it’s wrong. We don’t increase anything then but ourselves – and we are finite.
Instead, the point of education is one of taking it in, mastering the skills, adding to them, and passing on what you know to those who come after. This is the process of education, this is the purpose of education. Ever-increasing knowledge and skill.
Even a book can teach. Or perhaps better said, especially a book can teach. Jiraiya, along with taking on several students over time, wrote books. And these had a big impact on the characters, on the plot, and will do a lot (we think… we’re still watching!) to lead towards that world peace he’s hoping for. I love that this is a part of the show – this belief that a book, a fiction book, can hold this much power. Can change the world. Can teach.
This all also has me thinking about another saying – “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” That seems like the sort of phrase that is believed by the first sort of people – the sort who would horde knowledge to themselves, who would treat it solely as personal power, who would use it to enhance themselves. If you have knowledge, you do, you act, and an effect happens. Done.
Except… shouldn’t we be working on increasing and enhancing? Maybe the saying should be “Do, then teach.” Shorter, and better. I don’t know. After my thoughts here – what do you think of the quote? And about education as a process of generational improvement? Let me know in the comments below!