Monday, October 1, 2012

No laughing matter

Just when Indonesian politics started to not seem so horrifying, some knucklehead had to go and open his big yapper.

Solo Mayor Joko Widodo was officially declared the winner on Friday of the race to be Jakarta's next governor, kicking incumbent Fauzi Bowo to the curb despite the latter's supporters openly and frequently playing up racial and religious fears. That Joko was able to win as a Jakarta outsider and with an ethnic Chinese Christian as his running mate briefly raised hopes that politics in Indonesia could be more about picking the best candidate than which one looks and prays like the most people -- the staid Economist called the win "a triumph for tolerance and civilised values."

Enter comedian-turned-lawmaker Dedi Gumelar. He says the plan to eliminate science and social studies from the national elementary school curriculum is a jim-dandy idea. His stance is odd in that on one hand he bemoans the current curriculum as being modeled after "the West" (whatever that means), yet on the other he suggests embracing the system of Indonesia's former colonial masters.
Dedi said Indonesia should go back to the education system adopted during Dutch colonial rule and shortly after independence, when elementary school students were only taught basic education.

“In kindergarten, learning how to count and read should be prohibited because that’s the time to play and know nature empirically,” Dedi said. “It is easy to teach children to be smart but we should teach children how to be right.”

The Ministry of Education and Culture on Thursday announced that science and social science will be taken out of the elementary school’s curriculum next year to provide children with less school time.

The ministry said that the new curriculum would emphasize basic mathematics, the Indonesian language, religious studies and patriotism.
So colonial Dutch education - science - social studies + religion + patriotism = profits? Or is that prophets?

Even coming from a PDI-P acolyte, this is bizarre. One of the most common refrains as Indonesia tries to assume what the chestier nationalists say is its rightful place on the world stage is the need to make the country more competitive. Demographic heft will only take a country so far, as India is learning rather swiftly, and a steady stream of mixed signals has foreign investors unsure what to make of Indonesia.

Improving infrastructure is high on the to-do list, of course. It has to be, what with it being cheaper to ship to Jakarta from Singapore than Padang and oranges from China being cheaper in Indonesia than those from Medan. Roads and ports are only one part of the story, though.
Still, infrastructure is but one element; technological readiness is another. Indonesia is not sourcing enough technological advances domestically, and is adding too little value to raw materials. While this is an issue in the short run, Indonesia can always adopt technological innovations from foreign companies through FDI. The Harvard Kennedy School Indonesia Program has found that Indonesia needs to integrate into global supply chains for the same reason, as such networks are often coordinated at each level by multinationals willing to share their efficient production methods in order to reduce costs. This is particularly the case with regard to technological capacity, which is required in all export sectors to develop efficient production methods and reduce costs in a highly competitive global market. For technological competitiveness, the WEF Global Competitiveness Report ranks Indonesia 91st out of 139 countries. Of all of the relevant rankings, this is the country’s worst result.

The third criterion mentioned above is human capital. The low levels of skills and training for workers in Indonesia constrains the production of competitive exports. Indonesia is ranked 66th for higher education and training, and although it has achieved much success in improving enrollment rates at every level of education, it has focused on quantity (fueled by an education-for-all policy) while many people believe overall quality is declining. A lack of investment in tertiary education means the qualifications that the economy needs — science and engineering programs in particular, which are also the most expensive to teach — are in short supply. This is at a time when China is producing 300,000 engineering graduates a year. [Emphasis mine -- ed.]
That's right: In a world where science, technology, engineering and mathematics are taking on ever-greater importance -- and in which Indonesia's leading research institute employs three support staff for every actual scientist -- this bunch of yutzes wants to handicap future generations while whipping more religion and patriotism on them. What's that, G.K. -- something about refuges and scoundrels? I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

Or is it? Sure, this could be another case of the authorities bumbling into a new program with no thought beforehand -- it would hardly be the first time -- but after all, isn't the definition of a gaffe when a politician utters some truth he isn't supposed to say? Looking back on the Dutch colonial era, the education system appeared to be by the elite and for the elite, with the local population divided by race and socioeconomic status while being kept to the margins. Now, who would benefit from an obsequious, oblivious populace that loves Allah, loves their country and doesn't ask too many questions? Certainly not Dedi and his fellow elites at the House of Representatives -- the same vampires who are trying to suck the life out from the only institution making headway in fighting corruption, the same institution that's jailed 40 current or former House members with still more in the hopper. Certainly not the same elites who keep demanding more pay and more perks as they do less and less legislating and fling blame at everyone but themselves when they're called out for their misdeeds.

But let's not get sidetracked. FSM knows political foofery will be around for quite some time yet. Eliminating science from elementary schools not only leaves millions of Indonesian children disadvantaged, it also sells science education short. At that age, science isn't about cramming arcane facts, figures and formulas into malleable little brains -- it's about instilling, as Bill Nye puts it, the passion, beauty and joy of science. It's about helping kids wonder about and question the world around them, so that even if they don't turn into the "physicists and mathematical geniuses" at whom Pak Dedi sniffs, they'll still have the ability and confidence to think for themselves the next time some doom-mongering politician or slimy official tries to lead them a merry dance.

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