Give teachers space under uniform education policy

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, May 02 2015, 9:46 AM

Many education practitioners are familiar with Ki Hadjar Dewantara’s educational vision, Ing ngarso sung tuladha, ing madya mangun karsa, tut wuri handayani (provide a model, create a goal and provide constructive support), but not many are aware of his five basic tenets of education known as the Pancadharma (five merits): nature, freedom, culture, nationhood and humanity.

These five merits were introduced by Dewantara, known as a pioneer in education in colonial times, whose birthday of May 2 is commemorated as National Education Day.

It is the merits of freedom and humanity that teachers are still painstakingly struggling to achieve. The strict imposition of an overarching educational policy in a top-down fashion compels teachers to implement the political mandates prescribed in a formal educational directive like curricula.

The top-down policy, made by well-intentioned, but often ill-prepared persons, forces reality to conform to it, rather than the other way round.

This clearly closes off the opportunity for teachers to negotiate what they believe to be congruent with the everyday realities they engage in.

On the face of it, teachers are treated as a sheer implementer of the policy and a passive recipient of it. Their critical voices are often silenced; their teaching intuition and experiences are demoted as scientific gibberish.

They instead must one-sidedly bow to what has been verified as something that has been scientifically proven.

The long-standing pursuit for an educational macro policy like the national curricula for schools nation-wide has reduced the significance of the Pancadharma as envisioned by Dewantara.

The notion of national education has been reduced to an activity that ambitiously seeks a fixed and immutable Procrustean standard, as if this standard is viable to all educational contexts.

We need to realize that what has been formally pre-determined and planned via pronouncements such as legislation, policy statements and educational directives may be at loggerheads with the realities teachers are facing. So to speak, what’s then in a curriculum?

The merit of freedom in the Pancadharma presupposes policy as engagements. That is, written documents like curricula and textbooks are no longer seen as sacrosanct and infallible. They are subject to interpretation and reinterpretation by virtue of teachers’ experiences and their engagements with realities.

As such, teachers have the right to exercise their agency as the ones who have the authority over the knowledge constructed in a very situated and local site (i.e. schools or classrooms).

To realize this, they need to be made conscious that educational directives manifested via curricula aren’t value-free, but are political products.

Educational policies have been used for the perpetuation of certain ideologies and cultural and religious values.

In this respect, they may represent what Pierre Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence”. For example, it is not uncommon to see many kinds of propaganda, coercion and political manifestos being infused (often surreptitiously) into the curricular products and school textbooks.

To be critical about the overt educational agendas (infused into curricula) that often favor certain classes, cultures, languages and religions at the expense of others, pedagogic activism is necessary.

This means teachers must be proactive in exercising their political rights to critically question and even to resist educational policies, should they not accord with the realities and should they do a great disservice to all related parties involved in educational activities.

As this effort happens in a specific site like a classroom, this is a form of a micro-strategy.

Thus policies as engagements encourage teachers to be pedagogically active in constructing and producing knowledge in their specific locality.

We can then offer teachers a space where they can critically reflect the merits and demerits of not only the policies imposed on them, but also those that are the products of their own creation.

The writer is an associate professor of English at the Faculty of Education and Language, Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.