Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 21, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

Is democratic character shaped by training? Many would answer "yes", including Victoria Camps in her essay Education for Democracy. She wrote, "If democratic behavior means the acquisition of certain habits, certain civic virtues, these can only be inculcated through education." Therefore, according to this argument, no one is born a democrat. America, for example, underwent hundreds of years before the country came of age and reached democratic "maturity", yet its leading politicians claim that democracy is still not the best system, merely a bit better than any other system of government.

Democracy is more process-oriented rather than output-oriented. It is, thus, an exhausting effort, yet considered fairer as all possibilities are diligently debated and all interest groups are consulted. The output might not be perfect, but should be acceptable to all, thus reducing potential conflicts among the "political animals". This, according to Victoria Camps, highlights the vital role of education in shaping the minds and deeds of people to acquire certain democratic values.

From this perceptive, Indonesia can be considered both fortunate and unfortunate. It is fortunate because it has now finally become a democracy. It is, however, at the same time unfortunate, because the development of democracy has been moving at a snails pace despite all the potential it has with the diversity of its people. Take a look at India, a nation that gained its independence at almost the same time as Indonesia. India has consistently trained itself as a democratic state and continuously upheld academic freedom and enhanced its academic standing while the latter has plunged into authoritarianism with rigid indoctrination and text-based learning in classrooms.

While many praised Indonesia for its swift move to democracy, it has nevertheless been marred by incidents which do not reflect democratic values. The euphoria saw tragic incidents in a form of sectarian and religious conflicts such as in Poso and Ambon, along with secessionist struggles in Aceh and West Papua and bombings by militant fundamentalists. Worse still, Indonesia's democracy has practically been abused by the feeling of superiority of the majority over the minority.

Indeed, it is a utopian ideal that education can bring about such a swift change in attitude within societies. But efforts have been made, including the overhaul of civic education, although the vibrant teaching material would not be of any use if teachers generally still lack competence and their welfare is neglected.

But has the attitude of teachers been influenced by this new atmosphere? Do the recent cases -- such as the increasingly critical voice of many teacher organizations -- show the shift in this attitude, from merely passing on knowledge to being open-minded and critical educators? It is hard to answer, but democracy is also training by doing.

And no matter shallow and superficial it would seem, teachers' increasingly critical awareness of the life of this nation should be judged in an appropriate manner. Why? Because this is a sign that we are on the right track toward the molding of the democratic character of our students.

But have teachers received the appreciation that they deserve? I don't think so. Democratic character should include sincerity in looking at ourselves critically and -- if necessary -- boldly but honestly stripping away our own weaknesses. This is what was vividly displayed by teachers during the national commemoration of Teacher's Day which was attended by Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Prof. Winarno Surakhmad, a senior and noted educationist, read out a poem during which he had to pause several times due to the raucous applause of thousands of teachers, "When will our school buildings improve their grade from just a chicken coop? Here is buried the remains of a teacher, who died of starvation after living on a salary that runs out after only one day." But to the surprise of many teachers and guests, the red-faced Vice President scolded them in a high-handed tone: "Teachers (should) form the nation's soul and character. If you mock the nation, who will respect it?" (The Jakarta Post, Nov. 28, 2005).

Kalla is undoubtedly correct that teachers are burdened with the responsibility of helping shape the nation's soul and character, but what he failed to realize is that such a noble duty would not be able to succeed without the ability to take a critical look at ourselves. What Professor Winarno did was to merely reflect on the saddening reality of education in this country.

This incident shows how the authoritarian attitude is still subconsciously embedded in the minds and deeds of our leaders, besides sadly demonstrating that the perception that teachers are mere conduits of knowledge -- not innovative agents of social change -- and that their job is only to teach, not educate, is still also deeply rooted in the mind-set of our leaders.

Some would say Kalla was just expressing his opinion honestly, but his reaction sends a clear but threatening message that a critical and reflective attitude should be not be part of a teacher's character. While the incident will not halt the march of this nation toward democracy, it shows how some elements of our society are still trapped in a state of denial toward our own shortcomings, an attitude that would instead weaken teachers' spirit and slow the recovery of this sick nation.

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