We need better citizenship education

Ben K. C. Laksana, Wellington | Opinion | Sat, November 16 2013, 11:07 AM

The silent majority has often been blamed for Indonesia’s burgeoning social problems. From ethno-religious conflicts to horrendous transportation in Jakarta, it is the moderate, educated majority that have the potential power and mass to initiate change, yet most seem to have remained largely silent on such issues.
Many blame this social passiveness partially on the 32 years of instilled fear and warped citizenship indoctrination during the reign of former president-dictator Soeharto. This may be true, but our educational policy has done incredibly little to try to reverse this.

It has done little to produce citizens that are not only empathetic but who are also highly critical, democratic citizens of Indonesia. By doing so, the policy has maintained and prolonged whatever underlying causes societal indifferences have stemmed from. In short, it has only reproduced submissive citizens that are not conscious of their full rights and duties as democratic citizens.

The problem is not the absence of democratic citizenship education. It is more about what and how citizenship education is being taught. Even with the 2013 curriculum, supposedly formulated to help repair the alleged moral decay of youth, it is still based on encouraging a rote, transmission-oriented learning of citizenship education. Essentially, students are simply asked to memorize and repeat what they have learned.

This method of learning may prove adequate for some school subjects with scientific formulas. Yet when it comes to citizenship education, where students are expected to learn what it means to be citizens, this method of learning is highly insufficient.

David Kerr from the National Foundation for Educational Research in the UK argues that citizenship education should “actively encourage investigation and interpretation of the many different ways in which these components [i.e. history, geography, government system, constitution, the rights and responsibilities of citizens] are determined and carried out.” He suggests a critical and active approach toward an understanding of citizenship and the many components it is based on. For us, the task is to evaluate with an analytical mind what it means to be an Indonesian.

This critical approach could develop citizenship education not only geared toward gaining knowledge on Indonesia, but also on a deep understanding and personal actualization of much-needed citizenship values, skills and attitudes that are needed to progress Indonesia toward becoming a fully-fledged democracy.

Such an approach may help improve understanding on the need for unity in a nation constantly teetering on the verge of religious and racial disunity. The understanding of one’s need for national unity stems from experience and understanding, which binds society deeper than blind acceptance of laws.

Indonesia has to move on from this rote, mechanical learning toward active, self-inquiring, participatory learning that has students actively engaging with democratic values that they have learned in classrooms. Today, classrooms are still merely indoctrinating young minds with societal beliefs and values that should not be questioned nor critiqued. Indonesia is a weakening democracy with seemingly educated Indonesians who remain dependent on authority figures to achieve societal change.

We are severely lacking in many social responsibilities as citizens, disconnected and increasingly apathetic toward one another. Beyond direct elections and massive demonstrations, society itself still has very little clue about the full capacity of a democracy to bring about change.

Indonesia’s democracy is skin deep at best and will remain so if the government and the people refuse to evolve citizenship education toward being more critical.

With the current education system, schools contain nothing more than despot authority figures propagating to students on what is right and what is wrong, hardly contributing to fostering critical minds.

The writer is a freelance writer, based in Wellington