Our obsession with moral shortcuts

Nathanael G. Sumaktoyo, Chicago, Illinois | Opinion | Sat, December 01 2012, 9:00 AM
Paper Edition | Page: 7

Much has been written about the incoming elementary school curriculum change, mostly concerns about the disappearance of science, social studies and English. As the subjects are crucial elements of elementary education, many fear that their disappearance will damage the competitiveness of Indonesian students in the global market.

The concern is legitimate. However, one crucial thing seems to be missing in the discussion: the examination of which subjects stay and go and what this says about us and our educational philosophy. The news is that science, social studies and English will go, whereas religious studies, civic education, physical education, mathematics, art and scouting will stay. The most intriguing question is why the three crucial subjects should go while religious studies and civic education remain intact.

Religious studies and citizenship education have long been regarded as the perfect embodiment of the Indonesian education goal of creating intellectually capable and, at the same time, moral students. As Khairil Anwar, the head of the Education and Culture Ministry’s research agency, said, the new elementary school curriculum will create children who are disciplined, honest and full of integrity. Nothing is regarded as better to do the job than religious studies, which teach students to fear and obey God, and civic education, which teaches students the basic principles of citizenry and social life.

If there is one thing Indonesians — lay citizens and bureaucrats alike — are preoccupied with, it is moral righteousness. We believe that morality is the answer to all social problems and that proper religious study, supported by civic education, will create moral citizens. Thus, no surprise, no matter what the problem is — be it student brawls, premarital sex, or radicalism — the proposed solution is always the same: more hours for religious study.

Unfortunately, such a rationale, though appealing on the ideological level, has little rational merit. The evidence is at best inconclusive. To start with, a chapter on The Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality explains that religious people are no more likely than the non-religious to help those whom they dislike, nor are they more honest.

Emphasis on religious studies may also contradict at least two educational goals. First, it may hinder the development of students’ critical faculties. Studies show that religiosity is related to a higher level of conformity and obedience to authority. Conformity and obedience are, of course, strange bedfellows for critical thinking.

Second, it is absurd to expect religious studies to be a remedy for social problems when some religious studies teachers themselves encouraging the extreme religious views that harm social harmony. A 2008 survey by the Jakarta Islamic State University on religious attitudes of Islamic studies teachers in Java found that 68 percent of respondents objected to having a non-Muslim school principal and 73 percent objected to the presence of non-Muslim worship houses in their neighborhoods. Only 3 percent of them thought their most important duty to help their students become tolerant citizens.

The case is the same for civic education. If there is anything which decades of social psychological research on the relationship between attitudes and behaviors teaches us, it is how inconsistent the relationship is. The sense of national identity expected to form through citizenship education will not necessarily lead to nationalistic acts such as tolerance or social cooperation. There are simply too many exogenous factors that render the effect of the subject negligible.

In the light of the evidence, the curriculum designers’ insistence on keeping religious studies and citizenship education at the expense of science, social studies and English is deeply troubling. If we take the official explanation for granted that the new curriculum is designed to create honest and moral students, we should afterward ask why the preferred way is through religious studies and civic education shortcuts —whose effectiveness is far from clear. Why are we not creating honest and moral students “the long way” — developing students’ moral by developing their critical faculties?

The curriculum designers know that science and social studies are not only about planets, animals, or history. More important than what the subjects study is how they study them. Unlike religious studies that are doctrinaire, science is about curiosity. It is open to debate and question. It invites critical thinking. The removal of the subjects seems to highlight what little value we place on critical thinking and our implicit belief that no morality can come from critical minds.

One question that begs a serious answer from policymakers is why, among many alternatives to develop moral students, we choose the easy way — “tell students what is right and wrong and teach them to obey.” Why do we not feel obliged to help students think critically? Why are we are more interested in instilling in them, through religious and citizenship educations, the values we deem appropriate?

Maybe we are still reluctant to have overly critical students, who one day may challenge our values. Are we not, in a sense, happy just to make our students photocopies of ourselves?

The writer is a Fulbright student studying social psychology at Loyola University Chicago.

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