The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Have faith in the curriculum

I was once warned by a cynical Australian academic to never run after a bus, a pretty woman or an education policy: That’s because another would arrive shortly.
He was right.  To be appointed an education minister’s deputy is to be anointed with the right to churn the curriculum without consulting the public.  Consequently Musliar Kaslim’s top down decision to shake up the system after just a year in office is no surprise.
First an apology and retraction. When I read the Deputy Education and Culture Minister’s plans to ban teaching English in elementary schools I assumed the fellow was a grunting Neanderthal, awarded this important job for services involving envelopes and politics.
Wrong, and wrong again.  Prof., Dr., Ir., H Musliar Kaslim MS is the former rector of Andalas University, the nation’s oldest outside Java.  .
So why is such an eminent, Philippines-trained scholar trashing the syllabi like the Islamic Defenders Front in a Blok M bar?
Here’s the clue: Andalas doesn’t have an education faculty.  This gives Dr Kaslim a warrant to wreck.  For the authority to revolutionize the classroom can only be exercised by those who’ve never scraped their fingernails across broken blackboards for decades.
The Deputy Minister’s speciality has been agriculture.  This involves tilling the passive soil, manipulating trace elements, destroying weeds, nurturing the right growth, dosing with pesticides.  The similarities with education are obvious.
Chalkies who’ve coped with crowded classes of mixed abilities and backgrounds without succumbing to sedatives might differ.  Their experience shows children pick up languages best when young, their minds supple.
Almost 500 years ago St. Francis Xavier said ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man’ – but he was the unbeliever who brought Catholicism to the Moluccas, so an inappropriate role model.
Religion and Indonesian are to be given primacy. Heaven forbid the Republic should follow bilingual Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, the dunces of Southeast Asia, ridiculed by everyone. 
The best teachers are forever flexible. Obviously they are not the right people to write policy. Nor are parents. Better leave it to the doctrinaires. Their slogan: Never let the facts get in the way of a good ideology.
Imagine Dr Kaslim in the health portfolio. He’d be telling doctors how to pen prescriptions. Moms would have to check baby’s whereabouts before he tossed out the bathwater. Patients would demand drugs and get dogma, seek surgery and be offered scripture.
Some believe faith is personal and the state should keep out of its citizens’ soul space.  They think children should learn about all religions, then be left to decide what path – if any - to select once they can reason.
Could this be Dr Kaslim’s hidden agenda, the liberation of young minds, even freethinking? 
Perhaps not. The Deputy Minister, who has been to Mecca, has been quoted as saying that teaching English in primary schools is haram.  This BTW also doubles as a polite invitation for footnotes so scholars can research his interesting assertion.
Some of Dr Kaslim’s ideas on trimming topics are laudable. There’s evidence of subject overloading. The eradication of English at primary school should stop harassment by grubby lads shouting ‘Allo Mister’ and giving foreigners the finger.  In future they’ll use grammatically perfect Indonesian embellished with respectful gestures.
Lacking the full picture some educators have reacted negatively to Dr Kaslim’s other plans to scrap science in primary school and noted contradictions.  Earlier this year he lamented the lack of Indonesian PhDs – just a fraction of those in nearby nations – and encouraged higher education.
A most worthy goal.  If these future doctorates are in theology they’ll have to be studied in Arabic or Hebrew - those in the hard sciences researched and written in a language other than Indonesian.  Maybe in the global tongue.
But not to despair – the Deputy Minister allegedly told journalists that English could be understood in six months.
Teachers nonplussed by the new policy can relax.  Just schedule half a year to master the medium used in science, technology, medicine, the arts, mathematics and computing.  But first the serious stuff: Religion. 
There must be some Nobel prizes there. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Sunday Post 4 November 2012)

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