Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, August 15, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

The threat by former Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung to sue teacher and school textbook author Retno Listyarti is quite alarming for the teaching profession, the members of which have suffered for decades from low salaries and poor social status in society.

In our country, teachers are regarded as being members of a profession that has high moral integrity, so "high" that money or any kind of material reward is often considered too "low" to be presented to teachers in appreciation for their earnest efforts to mold the character of this nation. That's why they are labeled, almost officially, as "heroes with no reward", which -- due to their lowly social conditions -- looks more like humiliation than appreciation.

During the independence movement, parallel with our physical struggle to liberate this nation from colonialism, an education movement was also significant in liberating this nation from backwardness. Riding his bicycle, a teacher would be warmly welcomed and be assisted by his students to park his bike at the school. In circumstances where the desire for independence was high, the teacher would enthusiastically impart his zeal for independence to his pupils, who would attentively listen to him. Teachers were not only members of a noble profession, but also a liberating force.

Time has changed, values have evolved. During the developmentalism era of the New Order, teachers still had their political role, but they were used more as "state agents" to indoctrinate their pupils with the New Order's authoritarian ideology. At a time when teachers and students needed to develop creative thinking, the old paradigms of the colonial era were preserved for the sake for preserving the New Order regime's thirst for power. Development thrived, but not intellectuality in the true sense of the term, and the welfare of teachers remained rock bottom.

During the reform era, teachers' welfare has remained near the bottom. Nevertheless, a new idealism on the part of teachers to reorientate their roles in society has emerged. The movement, unfortunately, appears to be highly fragmented and some brave teachers have already fallen victim. Nurlaila, for example, was fired from her position of a teacher in a state-ran junior high school (SMP) in Jakarta when she blew the whistle on alleged corruption in a land-swap deal involving her school and the local government.

Just recently, a senior high school civics teacher, Retno Listyarti, came under intense political pressure after Akbar Tandjung, a powerful Golkar Party politician, threatened to sue her over a textbook she wrote that highlighted his high profile graft case (in which, incidentally, he was acquitted by the Supreme Court).

What can we infer from such cases? They show a new pattern of relations between teachers and society. Under the New Order, teachers were detached from society and were often accused of presenting something remote from students.

Now, however, with the new spirit of openness, the teacher's role is something that has evolved and is tailored differently -- inevitably different as each teacher may have a different interpretation of his role. Conceptually, a teacher's role sparks a sense of universality, something that all teachers need to adhere to, but realistically the "self" of teachers cannot be ignored.

As one expert argues, "The teacher brings into the classroom his views of his job, his prejudices, his personal fears and inadequacies, his ambitions, his humanity and affection." Despite drawbacks and difficulties, the recently introduced competency-based curriculum should be able to convert the "anxiety" of teachers into something pedagogically beneficial for the development of pupils.

This is the area where teachers can strike a balance, meaning that if given enough room to creatively maneuver, teachers can maximize their potential to meet societal demands and concurrently "realize" their ideal perception of society in the classroom. Thus, it could help narrow the gap between the school and outside world.

While the issue of teachers' welfare can be advanced as something that retards teacher creativity, as one writer argued in this paper a while ago, one school might be materially poor, but spiritually rich. This analogy can also be applied to individual teachers. He might be materially poor, but resourcefully rich, such as is the case with Retno Lisyarti, who ingeniously turned a critical thinking lesson into something more contextual by relating it to the factual case of a public figure, Akbar Tandjung.

What is most important now -- since the state is nearly bankrupt when it comes to providing decent teacher training -- is to at least provide teachers with a supportive atmosphere so that they can professionally develop themselves without fear of being constrained.

Issuing an ambiguous press statement merely stating that the case is the publisher's responsibility and teachers have the right to choose factual cases as discourse topics is hideously insufficient; the Ministry of National Education should provide concrete legal assistance to Retno. Although the teaching profession bill has not been passed into law, the case will reveal to what extent the state is genuinely concerned with the protection of teachers' academic freedom.

Suing a high school teacher like Retno for Rp 10 billion does not only humiliate her, but also all teachers, who still are forced to live in unacceptable conditions. This also constitutes blatant intimidation, which might kill off teacher creativity and academic freedom.

It would be more gracious for Akbar Tandjung to concentrate on doing good deeds that benefit the people so that he can be more favorably portrayed in the next edition of Retno's civics textbook.

Above all, preparing students to be critical of their own society is crucial to helping this nation escape from its entrenched problems. So, let the teachers once again be a liberating force!

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