Teach the Children
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Fri, 01/06/2012 1:52 PM |
Recognized as one of Indonesia’s foremost intellectuals, Anies Baswedan wants to bring the power of learning to those in remote areas of the country.
Anies Baswedan likes to ask a seemingly simple question: What is Indonesia’s most valuable resource?
Today, the political analyst and rector of Paramadina University asks the question of a group of teachers at a small, privately run elementary school in South Jakarta. Oil, says one teacher in the all-female staff. Others quickly add natural gas and coal.
The answer he is seeking – and rarely hears – is delivered in a near mumble by a short, cheerful woman in a brown headscarf: “People.”
It’s a sad fact that the Indonesian people have long been overlooked, beginning with colonial times, Anies says.
“It’s actually a grievous insult to the Indonesian people that they were treated as irrelevant by the colonists, who only wanted to plunder the natural resources of the archipelago,” the 42-year-old says.
More than six decades later, that colonial mentality of giving the people short shrift persists.
“If a government official only cites the number of barrels of oil produced as proof of development, instead of our human resources, then I have to say that he is still thinking with a colonial mind-set,” Anies says.
The colonists’ denigrating attitude was particularly apparent in the denial of education to Indonesians. He notes that at the time of Independence in 1945, the country had only 92 high schools and five universities. Even worse, 95 percent of the population was illiterate.
Times have changed in the past 66 years. A push to construct high schools in the 1950s led to the establishment of 6,000 by 1990 and almost 20,000 in 2010. The literacy rate today is 92 percent.
But during the same period, an educational divide has appeared between the haves and have-nots, with the emerging, mostly middle class able to purchase a better education – “the middle class can take care of themselves”.
In contrast, the rural poor must make do with substandard state facilities.
Ensuring a quality education is key to effecting positive change in Indonesia, believes Anies.
His emphasis on education for all led to the founding of Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia Teaches) in 2009. It aims to place the best and brightest of Indonesian university graduates as teachers in understaffed schools in far-flung areas of the country.
“Indonesian problems are endless, and a few years ago, we had an informal discussion about them, deciding that education could make the difference,” says Anies. “A good curriculum will be delivered in a good way, but the key is the teacher. A problem is that distribution is really bad. Some schools have more teachers than they need, and others just don’t have enough.”
Anies travels with only a photographer to document his visit to the elementary school. Without ceremony, he sits on a plastic stool in front of the teachers and talks about Indonesia Mengajar.
He keeps the discussion flowing, affably taking in stride a few digressions from the audience but, as an expert with years of practice, he gently but firmly stays on message: Teachers can make a difference in the lives of their students. And it’s everybody’s responsibility to pull together for the nation.
“I’m not an education specialist, but I have the experience,” he declares.
The women listen intently to Anies, who in 2007 became, at age 36, the youngest rector in Paramadina’s history, a man with a distinguished family pedigree of public service and whom some have tipped as a potential future president.
“How can we be better teachers?” one woman asks, pointing out the increasing demands for teachers to better engage their students.
Anies answers with a story about the illusionist Houdini, who was challenged to extricate himself from a room but only later found out that the door was unlocked.
Think outside the box, is his advice.
“And most of all we need integrity, because it is something we are lacking today, especially among politicians,” he says. “We must do things for others, not out of self-interest.”
Head of the Class
Indonesia Mengajar is based on a 1952 program that enlisted university graduates to teach in rural areas. Among the teachers was Koesnadi Hardjasoemantri, one of Anies’ mentors when he was a student at Gadjah Mada University. Anies later received his doctorate from Northern Illinois University in the United States.
The question for the current program was whether top graduates would be willing to postpone launching their careers to volunteer for a year of living rough in the provinces. The response was surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive: Although Anies had hoped to receive up to 500 applicants for the 50-odd placements in the first year, more than 1,100 people applied.
Anies says he appeals to younger people’s social consciousness.
“Of course, we can’t offer them the kind of money that they could get from the corporate world. I say to them, this is only for a year, and you will be doing something impactful and meaningful that will last for the rest of your life. Your students will never forget you, and you will never forget them. And the response shows that young people are not the way we assume them to be.”
He hopes the teachers of Indonesia Mengajar will gain from their experience for their futures.
“They will be the leaders of the future, but they will have both world-class competence and grassroots knowledge, instead of having either one or the other,” he says.
“It’s truly Pancasila in practice. Some of the villagers have said, ‘We’re ashamed that a Javanese will come and teach in our village, where we ourselves don’t want to teach.’”
State of Mind
Nationalism and public service are in Anies’ blood. His grandfather, AR Baswedan, remains one of the country’s most famous freedom fighters, still remembered for putting the nation first and living modestly. Anies has recounted typing up his grandfather’s papers when he was a child in Yogyakarta.
Education was a priority. Both of his parents were teachers, and the campus of Gadjah Mada University was his “playground” growing up.
He witnessed first-hand the power of education to change people’s lives. His mother’s choice to leave her hometown of Kuningan, West Java, for a high school education in the city was controversial in the 1950s.
“She was one of 10 children, and I saw for myself the difference in the lives and welfare of her three eldest siblings, who did not pursue their educations, and the rest of the children who did,” he says.
Anies also learned from his experiences of being away from home, including as a high school exchange student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He would make the rounds of church groups and community centers to talk about Indonesia.
“Sometimes I would get questions on East Timor, and it was from people who really knew what they were talking about. It was hard for me as a teenager, but I just studied more and learned about the issue,” says Anies, who prods students to learn three languages, “because Americans are the only people who speak one”.
In university, he also did his three-month rural experience program in a remote town in Central Java. There was no running water: the local stream was the all-purpose bathroom.
It was a bare-basics experience that he remembers to this day, and one that he says helps keeps him grounded, even as he rubs shoulders with the world’s leading policy makers and intellectuals (US-based Foreign Policy magazine included Anies in its list of the 100 Top Public Intellectuals worldwide in 2008).
“I tell the teachers of Indonesia Mengajar to inspire but to always remain humble. Not everybody wants them there in the communities. But they must remember that sincerity is very contagious.”