The public’s attention is now being absorbed by the circulation of a series of books depicting the life and career of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Using the so-called special allocation budget, the books have been widely distributed for consumption by elementary and junior high schools students in provinces such as West Java, Central Java and Banten.
Interestingly, circulation of the books has generated mixed reactions from politicians, teachers, education observers and the like. Some object to the distribution, saying that the books’ contents are not in line with what is prescribed in the national curriculum and are cognitively demanding for students to read. Others have harshly condemned the books on the grounds that there was a deliberate effort on the part of the government to promote the image of the President and hence their distribution was politically rather than educationally motivated.
Nevertheless, those who assented to the books’ circulation simply contended that the books would do no harm if they were used as enrichment reading materials. Books about any Indonesian political figure, these proponents say, shouldn’t be proscribed for educational consumptions.
Though they are not really relevant to the curriculum, the books can be used not only as enrichment reading materials, but also as supplementary learning materials, say in civics classes.
By that logic, it is fair to say that any kind of book – whether it is about about Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao Tse-tung – and other books disseminating communism shouldn’t be barred for similar reasons.
“It seems premature to say that students won’t be able to digest the contents of the books.”
Further, the former’s arguments for condemning the books due to political motives seem woefully naïve. To begin with, educational activities are never free from politics. For instance, decisions made to endorse curricula used by schools, to conduct the annual national exams, and to censor (by the National Book Center) which school textbooks should be and shouldn’t be used by students and teachers are all political decisions.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, teachers’ preferences for certain teaching methods, evaluations or assessment tools are never free of political reasons. In essence, education is always intertwined with politics.
Similarly, claiming that the books aren’t appropriate for students disparages students’ cognition. It seems premature to say that students won’t be able to digest the contents of the books simply because they are alleged to have political contents.
Any kind of book, including books about Yudhoyono, can certainly have an educational benefit depending on how they are read. If used in an academic context, classroom teachers will be faced with two options: They can use the books as a means of indoctrination or they can use them as a means of developing students’ critical thinking.
In the former, teachers would inculcate their students with a dogmatic attitude, something inimical to the development of students’ critical thinking.
In contrast, if teachers favor the latter option, the locus of concern then shouldn’t be whether the books are in line with the curriculum and whether the students’ cognitive development allows them to read the books but instead how teachers help students examine, challenge and interrogate what is written in the books.
Take, for example, series with titles such as Fair without Discrimination and Caring about Poverty. If intended as supplementary teaching materials, teachers can select content they think relevant to the current situation and have the class discuss it.
Classroom activities could be devoted to examining and challenging rather than simply presenting the content of the books to the students. Using pre-determined questions, teachers can relate what is described in the books to the current social reality the students are facing.
Actual reports from newspapers (e.g., editorial opinions) on similar topics and issues can equally be used as important teaching materials to either contest or support what has been written in the books. As such, they may help students discern differences between what constitutes mere opinion and what qualifies as fact.
Evaluating available evidence from different books and other reading materials can familiarize students with the skills of rebuttal and confutation that are needed for arguing and challenging prevailing opinions which might mask the real truth.
The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta and chief editor of the
Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching