Thursday, May 22, 2008

Looking into the future of national education system

Mochtar Buchori , Jakarta | Fri, 05/02/2008 2:26 PM | Focus

A friend asked me recently what I thought about the future of education. "Do you see any encouraging signs? I only see depressing signs," he added. "I am very worried about our education in the future."

I told him the situation was not that bad. True, there are many depressing signs, but there are also some encouraging ones. Look, for instance, at the growth of "elite schools" in the country. The number of such academically respectable schools has been continuously increasing. And what is also encouraging, is that these schools are spread throughout the country.

They do not only exist in big cities, like Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta and Surabaya, but in small towns as well, like Kediri, Kudus and Padang Sidempuan, for instance.

And look at our high-school students who have won awards and championships in various international scholastic competitions. They do not only come from elite schools in big cities and well-to-do families; many of them come from good ordinary schools in small towns and ordinary families. These are encouraging facts. They are national achievers and prove the progress in our system. We should open our eyes to these achievements.

Overall, there are good things and bad things about our education system. The question to ask is not how our education system will be in the future. Instead, we should ask the following question: What must we do now to ensure we will have an education system to serve the interests of the people and the country in the future?

In this context, I agree the future of our education is indeed bleak. And this bleak picture will become reality if we do nothing to correct the present shortcomings in our system.

What is most frightening to me about our future is the millions of ill-educated Indonesians who will have to live next to and compete against a much smaller group of well-educated Indonesians, who, for practical reasons, will prefer to work with equally well-educated ex-pats.

In this kind of situation, coupled with the probability of a modernizing Indonesian economy, there will be a very uneven playing field in the job market. The group of well-educated Indonesians will wrest all high-paying jobs, while the large group of ill-educated people will be considered unemployable in the modern sector. They will be employed in menial jobs or in family businesses.

This will be a very dangerous situation that can easily spark social explosion. You don't have to be a communist to understand inequality in economic life has always been the source of social jealousy, which in turn constitutes the source of social explosion. And it is not difficult to imagine educational disparity will in time create economic disparity.

Can this specter be averted? It can, provided we introduce corrective measures into our present education system now. We should take measures designed to reduce the gap between elite schools and disadvantaged ones.

Essentially, these corrective measures should create an educational system providing affordable, high-quality education to all children from all socio-economic backgrounds. I must add this is a very difficult national task to carry out for all of us. It requires very close cooperation among all parties concerned and it will take a long time to accomplish. By my estimate, if we start to introduce these corrective measures now, it will take another ten to fifteen years before we can see the emergence of a more democratic climate in our system.

Another important question to ask is: What do we mean by "good education" or "quality education"?

Most define "good education" in terms of excellence in academic learning alone. This definition fails to cover the important non-academic aspects of education, like character building for instance. True education is everywhere in the world. It is a systematic attempt to teach the young about life. This means three things: first, to guide the young to learn how to make a living; second, to guide them towards a meaningful life, personally and collectively; and third, to encourage them to contribute to the ennoblement of life.

It follows from the educational paradigm that academic learning alone will not suffice to make a "good education". The ability to live meaningfully and to ennoble life needs many other things beside academic matters. In good schools that strive to expose children to comprehensive education, Professor Phenix's recommends guiding students to explore the six realms of meaning in life, which are the symbolic, empiric, aesthetic, synnoetic, ethical and synoptic. Viewed within our conventional academic education, we cover only two areas -- the symbolic (language and mathematics) and the empiric (natural and social sciences).

With such limited education, it is very difficult for most students to develop a meaningful life and to contribute to the ennoblement of life. They have to learn many other things on their own to be able to live meaningfully. They have to learn on their own how to acquire wisdom in addition to knowledge and skills.

This is the rough sketch of the job we have to correct the shortcomings in our education system today. We have to make sure we are not heading towards an Indonesia where human life is reduced to repetition just to stay alive and nothing more.

The writer holds a PhD in education from Harvard University.

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