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In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project


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What's the score with Indonesian education?

An advertisment for Manchester United branded debit cards, for True Fans in Indonesia

True Fans in Indonesia flash Manchester United credit cards

The first thing any Indonesian asks a stray foreigner, before they even get to age, marital status or the product of one’s ovaries, is: “Dari mana?” Where are you from? And the first thing they say when I say “England” is: “Wah! Manchester United!” (Occasional variant: “Wah! David Beckham!”) The second thing they will say is: “I wish we’d been colonized by the Brits, not the Dutch.” This is especially true in areas which border Malaysia, such as West Kalimantan where I’ve spent the last couple of weeks. Malaysia is the go-to example for the assertion that former British colonies are more “maju”, more developed, than those colonised by the Dutch. Certainly it’s a major source of employment for poorer Indonesians from all over the archipelago.

When I ask what the difference was between the two colonial powers, I almost always get the same answer: the Brits educated the ‘natives’ in their colonies, whereas “the Dutch just wanted to keep us all stupid”. Obviously, this is a vast and complex topic with many truths, half truths and rewritings of truths alongside some blatant errors of fact. But it certainly seems that Malaysia had a stronger educational infrastructure at independence than Indonesia did, and the gap has widened radically since. So I was quite surprised to read in the Jakarta Globe that an Indonesian parliamentarian is calling for a return to the Dutch colonial educational system. When they got around to providing any education at all, the Dutch circumscribed knowledge quite tightly. Essentially, they taught just enough to turn ‘educated’ Indonesians into clerks and (very) minor civil servants. But former comedian Dedi Gumelar approves of this; he particularly endorses a proposal by the Ministry of Education to drop the teaching of science and social science at the primary level, the age at which children’s curiousity and excitement about the world around them is most pronounced, the age upon which the foundations of future learning are built.

“Let our education produce a civilized society, not just physicists and mathematical geniuses,” he said. “Let’s understand the values of humanity. That is the core of education.”

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. “… The ministry said that the new curriculum would emphasize basic mathematics, the Indonesian language, religious studies and patriotism.

In my (prosaic, English) mind, religion and the values of humanity are things you learn at home. Maths, science, geography, history are things you learn at school. Though as I’ve said before it’s pretty questionable how much Indonesian kids outside the larger towns ever learn at school. I have to wonder about the Ministry of Education’s assertion that kids should have less schooling. In theory, primary school kids are in the classroom from seven in the morning until noon. But when I went to help out for a day in a school up a tributary of the Kapuas Hulu river in the forests-cum-rubber-plantations of Indonesian Borneo last week, the teacher who had the key to the office didn’t show up until 7.30 (and teaching can’t start until the principal’s office in unlocked because…. well, Because). Two of the other three teachers who were between them responsible for six grades of primary school and two of secondary school drifted in somewhere closer to 9.00. Then all four teachers set the children tasks and retired to smoke and drink toxic orange drinks in the staff room. Dispiritingly, the kids were sometimes asked to copy out multiple choice questions, including all the wrong answers, from their text books into their note books. By 11.30, exhausted by what passes for teaching in rural Indonesia, the educators told most of the classes that they could go home.

It’s lucky that village kids in Indonesia are obsessed with football rather than cricket. Their maths is just about up to keeping score in single figures, but I sometimes wonder if they’d be able to go much further. As for understanding how a top sportsman’s body functions, well, who would be interested in that when they could be learning patriotism?