Indonesia's Children are Growing Up Scientifically Bankrupt

It may come as something of a surprise, but Indonesia has the fourth largest education system in the world, with a youth literacy rate of 99.42% – a massive leap of 20% since 1973 – and the completion rate of primary school is high. Its government emerged from the Asian economic crisis of the 1990s somewhat bruised but nonetheless managed to amplify education spending twofold in the first six years of this century, and now its focus is on improving the quality of education by upgrading the employment conditions and requirements of teacher certification, whilst conceding autonomy to schools as part of decentralisation by giving them some flexibility in the management of their funds.

Therefore it seems bizarre, for a government so concerned with the accomplishment of its country’s education, that Indonesia recently ranked last out of 50 countries in a landmark report by 101 East (Al Jazeera’s Asian Current Affairs programme) that measured literacy, test results, and graduation rates amongst other benchmarks. This is an issue that the investigation puts down to corruption and poor teaching, which runs contrary to the remarkable statistics mentioned above. Despite being listed as a middle-income country by the World Bank, Indonesia still receives much of its funds for education from foreign aid and many schools are dirty with embezzlement, bribery, and graft; its impressive examination figures could well be indicative of the sweeteners parents are willing to hand over to see their kids acquire a basic education. And in the end, only a third of the 57 million students actually do.

Perhaps the most detrimental element at stake however, is that the schooling system has wound itself into one of those most perilous snares of East Asian education – the rejection of critical and creative thinking for a style of learning that promotes rote memorisation, which is tied closely to the culture of unquestioned pedagogical authority.

In a bizarre response to criticism over the shortcomings, the Ministry for Culture and Education is currently in the process of removing science, English, IT and social studies classes from primary schools in favour of a curriculum based on nationalism, religion and “character-building”. According to officials such as Mohammad Nuh, more classroom time is needed to be devoted to religious and moral instruction to avoid wider problems such as social unrest, violence, and terrorism. The country encompasses six main faiths, the largest being Muslim, and each student is taught their religion accordingly. The new curriculum sees religious study allocated more class time per day at the expense of science lessons, a somewhat counter-productive move for a country that aims to develop output and sustain a modernising economy. This will lead to fewer researchers and weaker technological development, both of which are essential to keep Indonesia driving forward in a global market. Innovation will be stifled without the curiosity and creativity instilled by the very subjects being given the axe.

The issue with this new system is that the FSGI (Federation of Indonesian Teachers Associations) cannot accurately gauge student performance as parameters are too abstract and very often unrelated. For example, performance target for teaching biology at senior high school level is “for students to admire and be thankful for their body’s anatomy”. The organisation has called on Mr Nuh to repeal the reforms before it is too late and Indonesia’s ability to compete internationally deteriorates.

So far the “curriculum” has only been piloted in 6,000 primary schools, but the government intends to have the reforms implemented nationwide by 2015. It would be easy to praise the dedication of Indonesia’s government towards the education of its youth simply from a glance of its superficially impressive track-record, but ultimately, high rates of literacy and attendance do not paint the full picture. Behind the scenes is a new generation of children going through their most crucial stages of education without having their sense of inquisitiveness nurtured, as well as concealed corruption and a dogmatic prioritising of religious instruction. Whether or not such academic banality is really for the benefit of a secure society, rather than for the stability of the regime’s authority, is another question, but what is certain is the future of not just this country’s progress, but the whole world’s – Indonesia is our fourth most populous nation, and much of our own advancement rests on its younger generations.  And this future does not look promising; rather it resembles a vacuum of ingenuity.