Paper Mill Epidemic


Can money buy you honor, pride respect and experience without putting in the time sweat, work and dedication?

Once upon a time a student would train and learn from an instructor for weeks, months, years and decades. The instructor would have spent the same amount of time teaching these personal students. The Instructor would be as proud of the student as the student was of the Instructor. When the student received a grading, both the instructor and student new the exact curriculum for the required rank. Now a days there appears to be a certificate exchange program, which would not be so bad if the people actually trained with each other for more than a weekend. Quite often people are doing this without even training with the instructors. These people often just meet at an event, seminar or gathering and present their black belt certificates like they are a greeting card. I met a few people who call it a reciprocity certificate. I give you one of mine and you give me one of yours.

I used to think, I don't know how people can put these certificates up on their walls. How do people justify presenting themselves as a black belt or master in a martial art that they may have very little experience in, or sometimes no experience at all. Some people who have had years training alone or with many casual instructors may feel they need something to legitimize there training. They don't realize they put themselves in the same category as the posers and online certificate collectors. If you have been training for a long time, your true credentials are in what you have done, and what you can do. Over the years you should have attended or promoted events, you could have made instructional videos or taught many students. As you continue to learn and train and experience many new things you could have taken pictures, videos, collected trophies or any other thing of true value which demonstrates your time and dedication to the arts.

This problem did not begin with the unscrupulous students and instructors looking for credibility. It began with the snake oil salesman selling the credentials. I was once told by a well respected martial arts master that he just sells people what they want. If they want to pay for lessons he will teach them, if they want to pay for a certificate he will sell them. The Master actually laughed because some people have been known to travel all the way to Japan to only receive a certificate. The Master said he would have loved to share his art and knowledge, but when the student came to visit he said that he came to get his black belt. Strange how the certificate has become more important than the knowledge lessons and experience.

I have seen people market themselves with these authentic traditional certificates that can be purchased by anyone with money. I really have to wonder about the mind set or intent of not only the people buying these certificates but also the Instructors selling them. Never judge a person by a certificate; everyone has a history, training partners, long time students and instructors.

Guess itís sort of like buying a personally autographed baseball card, has to be worth something to the right collector. With all the organizations, groups and associationsí one can sure collect a lot of these certificates.

One of my favorite paper mill trick is the person who is trying to gain credibility through the power of the people. They just surf the net looking for any martial artist or school, then contact them with praise and offer membership in their exclusive group of the best of the best. After receiving a free membership they get offered a title like State Representative and in no time at all they are receiving a 9th degree black belt. Has to make you wonder how the person governing this group can now give you a rank in your own martial arts style.

When you see a certificate on a wall of an instructor, it is a good question to ask; How long did you train with that Master who signed it? I met a fellow who told me he had been training for years with his Master. I had to laugh because I new the Instructor lives in Japan and this person has never even left the Country. It does not say much for a person who uses the credentials of someone they only trained with a couple classes per year. One thing for sure is; the Master knows the difference between his personal students and his casual or seminar students, will you?

Once upon a time a certificate was meant to represent knowledge, skill and experience. Martial Arts taught honor, respect, loyalty, dedication, humility, wisdom. Things are very different now. Before training with anyone, you should thoroughly check their credentials, as even very well known Masters have been known to sign a paper mill certificate.

There are many causes and reasons why we have this paper mill epidemic. I have listed only a few. Obviously there must be a great supply and demand, which causes some to sell their credentials as certificates. The person selling the certificates knows what he is selling. The person buying knows what he is buying. Both people think they are fooling someone somewhere. The question is; who really is the Fool?

By Daniel Verkerke

November 12, 2007