I do not study martial arts to learn showy and good-looking movements--that's what dance is for. I do not study martial arts to play in tournaments--I prefer other sports. I study martial arts to learn the skills necessary to defend myself.
I feel martial arts are important as a means of self-defense, mastery over one's environment, and physical enlightenment. To cultivate oneself, a person has to develop both mind and body. Exercise and sports also serve the purpose of strengthening one's body, but I prefer martial arts because of their practical real-world aspect. The Shaolin monks, who practiced kung fu for fitness and physical enlightenment, came up with techniques that worked in real fights, despite the fact that they were pacifists! To me, this demonstrates that they placed a high value on knowing how to fight and defend themselves (and they certainly needed to do so in their turbulent times).
Admittedly, martial arts will do very little against an attacker with a gun, but to dismiss self-defense training because of this fact is defeatist, in my opinion. There are still situations where martial arts could be very useful. In today's society, where carrying a gun is often impractical (and illegal), martial arts are the next best thing, and some martial arts even include practical weapons training, such as how to fight with a cane, umbrella, or a small blade. And unlike using guns, you have the option of using non-lethal, non-life threatening techniques to end violent conflicts.
To learn how to fight and fight back also allows us to gain a better understanding of our biosurvival and territorial instincts. Such knowledge allows us to be more confident and assertive, but at the same time peaceful and not afraid. One's understanding of violence allows him or her to better understand and appreciate peace.
As domesticated primates, humans have sadly lost most of their fighting instincts. Sure enough, intelligence won over brute strength during the course of human evolution, where those who could create technology (fire, knives, etc.) had a distinct advantage over those who could not. As such, it is our intelligence which makes us very dangerous predators. However, when it comes down to raw hand-to-hand combat skills, humans are born miserably inadequate. Observe a fight between any two untrained individuals, and you will see awkwardness of movement unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Not only do we lack fighting instincts, we lack natural weapons such as claws, sharp teeth, and protective armor. Therefore, studying martial arts helps to compensate for our lack of proper fighting instincts, and the use of created weapons (tools) such as knives, firearms, and body armor compensates for our lack of natural defenses.
[Beyond their fighting applications, martial arts also help us to regain the natural ease of movement that we all had as children and lost. By teaching proper biomechanics and ridding us of the bad physical habits we've accumulated over the years, martial arts return to us the basic body awareness that gave us such boundless energy as children.]
Perhaps we don't really need to learn how to fight, since fighting is, in general, destructive. Then again, in the society we live in, self-defense skills are becoming more and more necessary, and if we don't know how to fight back, we make ourselves targets for exploitation. By knowing how to fight, we are less likely to be bullied. If everyone knew how to defend him or herself, we'd live in a more peaceful world, where it would be in everyone's best self-interest to deal with each other intelligently instead of violently.
Even if we never need to use our skills, they are worth having. Besides, it's fun to learn martial arts!
I have a Tae Kwon Do Blue Belt from when I studied in Korea as a child.
My primary interests, however, are grappling, kung fu, Muay Thai, and kobudo.
I was an assistant instructor and the treasurer for the Shaolin Kung Fu Association at Cornell (SKFAC). My instructors were Edwin Padlan (kung fu), Jared Cooper (jiu-jitsu), and Mike Torres (TKD, hapkido). Each instructor taught his own specialty, so the club was not strictly kung fu oriented. The instruction was informal and adaptive to each student, cross-training was highly emphasized, and several members studied other arts on the side or had come into the club with previous martial arts experience (like myself). The members shared what they knew with each other.
I studied Muay Thai for half a year under Sifu Kevin Seaman. At the Cornell Muay Thai club, I picked up useful kickboxing and boxing skills.
The kung fu style I learned was Hung Gar combined with some techniques from Praying Mantis and Wing Chun.
It is important to note that I respect all forms of martial arts. Every martial art has something to offer.
I am a big fan of Bruce Lee and his philosophies, and as such, try to take a JKD approach when I train. Below are some articles I have written on martial arts training philosophies.Grappling: Fact and Fiction - the importance of proper mindset when learning how to grapple.
Scientific training vs. pseudoscience in the martial arts.
rec.martial-arts Newbie Guide
HumorHow to fight animals
Another take on fighting animals
How to argue on rec.martial-arts