Unquestioning Acceptance of Facts in Schools Today Would Shock Patriot Ki Hajar Dewantara

We can only speculate on how Indonesia’s education pioneer, Ki Hajar Dewantara, would have reacted to modern concepts such as multiple intelligences, as he passed away in 1959 — too soon to have been familiar with them.

He was born on May 2, 1889, which Indonesia marks every year as Education Day.

The thinking of the Taman Siswa founder, who was also a journalist and a patriot, continue to be a source of knowledge and inspiration to those today who are concerned with the current state of Indonesian education.

Also known as Soewardi, he would very likely have embraced the paradigm which places modalities such as “logical-mathematical” alongside “musical” and “interpersonal,” all as worthy parameters for educational development. Certainly he would have championed the notion of students being active participants in their own education.

His focus on individual rights and choices make him a respected figure in the nation’s history and its educational development in particular. His concern for self-awareness helped his peers appreciate the importance of unity in the state and nation. With the student-centered model quite often the exception rather than the rule today, this is how and why Soewardi should be remembered.

Born into an aristocratic Yogyakarta family, he was given the name Raden Mas Soewardi Soerjaningrat. He changed it however, in an apparent bid to rid himself of the distinction and perhaps also discrimination, of noble birth. It was as if to say that everyone should have the opportunity to grow and succeed, regardless of family background.

The reluctant noble lived in turbulent times as the Republic sought independence from the Dutch. He was arrested and exiled for writing an ironic essay which put him in the Dutch rulers’ position and then expounded the idea of giving the Dutch colonies their freedom.

Key to his thinking was the proposition that, through education, Indonesian people could shape their identity and be free from the colonial yoke. Education was then for him a force for liberation and a means of empowerment. This implied a right to an education; but what kind of education?

Soewardi put forward quite a simple, yet far-reaching principle, which encompassed a holistic and interactive approach to education. It spoke of being before students — as an example for them and to build their spirit — as well as behind them, as a supporter and supervisor. But to what degree are those principles really applied today?

The revolutionary educator predated by decades the work of Howard Gardner in the 1980s, including his idea of multiple intelligences, which is surely a liberating one.

Over centuries, the “three R’s” (reading, writing and arithmetic) paradigm has resulted in a severely academic approach to education that still casts a shadow over much that is done in schools and colleges today. Too often we meet students who completely fail to comment or ask questions. They have neither been expected to, nor been equipped with the ability to do so. In fact, in some cases they are blatantly discouraged from active participation. This is partly to do with outcomes and expectations. When the overriding aim is get exam results, education is prone to get sidelined in favor of exam preparation.

But this stilted approach to education is also a part of the processes applied in the classroom. What becomes of Soewardi’s notion of being in front of students as an example where the teacher is seen as the ultimate authority, to be feared like a dictator? Without wanting to overstate the case, it is not uncommon for teachers to forbid students from asking questions
The model for learning is too theoretical, at best, and at worst merely an exercise in memorization. Theories and concepts are clung to with little application to the world beyond the classroom. Texts change little over years and all too often suffer from uncorrected mistakes. Memorization is too often the only thing being evaluated, without concern for developing students’ aptitude for creative or analytical thinking.

All of this leads to the predicament of students learning the “official” or “accepted” answer rather than questioning or commenting on the basis of thoughts and perceptions. The inquiring, challenging mind is the active and truly learning mind. Fettered by an overly zealous respect for authority, students are literally suppressed.

If Ki Hajar Dewantara had not been an inquiring, questioning and challenging thinker, he would have meekly accepted the continuation of colonial rule. Thus he would never have emerged as a leader of education in the newly-formed nation of Indonesia. Recent plans for educational change have been controversial. Respecting the great man’s legacy and commemorating his contributions to the nation demands the pursuit of education that liberates and empowers.

Simon Marcus Gower is director of international programs and quality assurance at UniSadhuGuna International College, Jakarta. All views expressed are his own.