If I may add my meager two cents worth, it's extremely hard to find people who really know their katas. Although I lack sufficient training to know for sure, I've noticed a distinctive difference in teaching style with traditional Eastern folks. Namely, they prefer to guide you by being one step ahead of you. They want you to figure things out for yourself. If you don't, you don't advance. Us westerners, I've noticed, will pretty much talk you through it. Of course, if someone still doesn't get it, what can you do? Traditional katas have many layers of subtleties that a student have to peel away and grasp.
Unfortunately, it is extremely hard to tell who knows it and who doesn't. Those who do won't show it to you since it's how they traditionally test you. Those who don't, well, until we have realized it for ourselves, how are we suppose to know? And how are we suppose to know if they don't know it? To make things more complicated than it already is, many katas depends on the mission statement of the style itself. For example, you probably aren't going to find layers of combative subtleties in a kata from a style that is only concerned with sports. Other roles of katas are used to identify and authenticate the style that you are in. Thus, the existance of the kata and its true meaning is known only to those who are in the genuine inner circle. Perhaps the most important role that katas serve is that they act as a "time capsule" in which decades if not centuries of combative subtleties and "secrets" are encapsulated within a formalized set of movements. That way, no matter what happens, the "secrets" aren't distorted or lost through time. Also, even if it's passed down from a clueless instructor, the subtleties and secrets of a particular style is preserved every time someone is able to grasp the kata (though I wouldn't hold my breath).
If you really want to know what I think about the whole thing, from a learning perspective, I say don't worry about katas at first. It's too hard to figure out the real deal from the fake. Find instructors who are on the same wavelength that you are on. Real deal combative techniques and "secrets" can still be taught by a extremely good instructor piecemeal with or without katas and whether or not the student realizes it or not. Don't get me wrong. Genuine combative katas are extremely important not only for its practical use, but for its tradition. But in the end, what really matters is that we make sure that we place ourselves in very capable hands. (Of course, finding capable instructors are another matter all to itself....)
[This message has been edited by SB (edited 12-09-98).]