Enlisting educators to uphold multiculturalism

Choirul Mahfud, Surabaya | Sat, 01/10/2009 10:19 AM | Opinion A | A | A |


The rampant ethnic and religious tension in Indonesia has frustrated the efforts of many social scientists, educators, scholars, Civil Society Organization (CSO) activists and community leaders for the past few years. There were indications of gains in the country’s struggle for democracy.

But the continuing ethnic and religious violence and unrest in some parts of the country show how prevailing and intransigent the problem of prejudice and discrimination has been. At a time when demographic changes and economic pressures are forcing people to come into contact with those from different backgrounds, feelings of distrust and alienation are rising.

While schools and educators cannot change economic growth and the constraints affecting factors of many of those human problems, they can make a difference in helping shape the students’ views of the world, respect for diversity and strengthening democracy.

During the last few decades, multicultural studies have enabled scholars and practitioners to see in all areas “the invisible paradigms” of the academic system and the larger cultural context that marginalize or trivialize the lives of women, ethnic minorities and those outside the dominant class or culture.

In Indonesia, the heavy pressure toward integration and national unity since its independence provided a different setting for the role of multiculturalism. The nation’s collective memory had been traumatized by the tension and violence resulting from various attempts at secession based on ideological, regional, cultural, as well as territorial differences and the efforts to terminate those attempts.

Yet, by the national motto of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) in Pancasila, the emphasis on unity should not neglect diversity. Education that stressed only unity above all would produce narrow-mindedness and uproot individuals out of their indigenous heritage.

For the same periods, education in Indonesia had discussed a little about how we appreciate and respect the religious or belief diversity and variety of cultural wealth. There was a tendency of homogenization introduced systematically through the education under the national cultural protection, the hegemony of Javanese culture as a center and others as the edge and pauperization of culture by shortening the variety of cultural identity into a number of Indonesian provinces.

In 1999, Anita Lie said the process of homogenization and the cultural hegemony and pauperization was taught in civic education, such as education of Pancasila and citizenship, national history and struggle, training of P4 (guidance for internalization and externalization of Pancasila) — and even religious education.

The recent tension and violence in different parts of the country showed that the excessive drive for unity that had been enforced especially for the past 30 years was not an effective response to the risk and fear of disintegration. Now that the nation is at a crossroad as a reform movement has started, ethnic, religious, racial and class differences should be regarded as the nation’s rich heritage.

Within this perspective, multicultural education is needed to foster peace, understanding and respect among all members of society. As we know, the perspectives in multicultural education encompass many dimensions of human difference: race, ethnicity, occupation, socioeconomic status, age, gender, sexual orientation, various physical traits and needs, religion, and culture.

One of the multicultural education premises states that teaching learning is a cultural process in a social context. In order for teaching and learning to be accessible and fair for various background and origins of students, cultures need to be clearly understood. Such understanding can be achieved by analyzing education from various cultural perspectives by which it can avoid the hegemony of dominant cultural experience.

School is an epitome of society. In the norms of procedure, attitudinal code, structural order, power distribution, special feature and responsibility, school reflects society’s cultural values. Classroom teachers, school administrators and policy makers bring their own experience and cultural perspective and influence the policy and education actions.

In addition, the students who come from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds are unavoidable to bring them, too. The various different cultural systems meet in school and classroom and can cause a cultural conflict, which can only be mediated and reconciled by the effectiveness of the instructional process that enlightens and opens the awkward, diluted cultural boundaries.

In 1987, Ramsey said multicultural education was not a set curriculum but a perspective that was reflected in all decisions about every phase and aspect of teaching. It is a lens through which teachers can scrutinize their choices in order to clarify what social information they are conveying overtly and covertly to their students.

In other words, educators should be aware of and responsible for the underlying goals and values of the curriculum designs, materials and activities they deliver to the students. Education occurs in a sociocultural context and all curriculum materials and practices reflect certain social values.

Shortly, in light of the need to foster peace and development, educators should recognize the underlying goals and values of the curriculum designs, materials and activities they deliver to the students. All curriculum materials and practices reflect certain social values.

As the curriculum processes still depend mainly on textbooks, educators should therefore ensure that the books they use in their classrooms be culturally sensitive and respect students’ varied sociocultural backgrounds, which affect their learning.

In this context, teachers should be aware of the growing diversity in schools and the implication of using a certain set of curricular materials in their classrooms. Social scientists and commentators often point out the rich blend of cultural differences found in Indonesian society. While these observers have a point, it is equally true that diversity is difficult … especially in schools.

However, as Aristotle saw it, the challenge of ethnicity (or multiculturalism), is one of augmenting familial love, expanding the natural links to one’s own “kind,” so that these links also include others who are more distantly related, rather than doing away with the initial links and bonds as such.

The writer is the author of book of Multicultural Education (Pustaka Pelajar Jogja, 2008), and a lecturer at Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya.

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