Sat, 16 Sep 2000

Changing images of teachers and 'kyai'

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): Do you have stereotype images of occupations or professions? Have the stereotypes changed over time? Mine have.

My first stereotype was of teachers, because I had always wanted to become one. My early image was that of an intellectual or learned person. A teacher was a "he", and not a "she". Teachers were also noble in my image, role models.

The way they dressed, whether in traditional Javanese or "western" attire, was always neat and meticulous. And the way they talked! My Javanese teachers spoke impeccable Javanese, and my Indonesian teachers who taught me Dutch also spoke perfectly.

The Javanese say the word guru (teacher) is an acronym of bisa digugu lan ditiru (a person you can trust and follow), which reinforced this image. Later, my desire to become a teacher was further strengthened by a friend's father who said to me, "If you want to be rich, you must go into business. But if you want to be happy, enter the teaching profession."

The most drastic change in this image occurred when a senior colleague whom I respected very much gave me the following advice, "Don't ever let people know that you are a teacher."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because outside the teaching community teachers are looked upon as persons who want to teach everybody else. The stereotype out there is that teachers are pedantic or priggish ... And the most pedantic teacher is one who wants to teach his own wife about everything. Just look around you, and forget for a while your idealized image about teachers, and you will see ugly images about teachers."

I began to look at teachers around me with detachment, and I began to see ugly representatives of the teaching profession. The ugliest were those who did not master their subject matter. They wasted time by talking incoherently about concepts they did not really understand -- they were only mouthing words and phrases.

And this kind of teacher can be found at every level of education, from elementary to higher education. They are ugly not only because they are repulsively boring, but because first and foremost they are destroying the students' minds.

My second stereotype was that of kyai (Islamic clerics), because my grandfather was one. My parents and other people said he was well known in his area; so much so that his grandchildren and children of his nephews and nieces have formed, after his death, a clan association named after him.

The early image I had about kyai was formed not only by my grandfather, but also by other kyai whom my grandfather frequently visited before he became sickly.

Whenever he visited another kyai he always tried to take me with him. I had to sit cross-legged on the bare floor all the while my grandfather and his friend engaged in a seemingly very interesting discussion.

This usually started at 9 p.m. -- after the late evening prayer -- and lasted until about 1 or 2 a.m. One can imagine how much I suffered in those sessions. But while I was awake I did manage to learn a few things about religious life. These visits lasted until I could no longer afford to see him during holidays, because of the deteriorating situation during the Japanese occupation.

The image I had was that kyai were very serious all the time. They seldom laughed heartily and might smiled infrequently. They never cracked jokes and they always spoke in earnest.

This is perhaps because I did not really understand what my grandfather was discussing with his colleagues. The only times I understood him was when he was having sessions with his disciples. This was mostly done in the evening, in his mosque across from the house.

He always asked me to come along, and asked me to sit at his left side, facing his disciples. These were moments when I learned most about Islam and the Islamic way of life.

Kyai are rich people. That was how I imagined them early in my life. My grandfather had much fertile land, tended by his disciples. He had also many cows, water buffaloes and sheep which also taken care of by his disciples.

He had horses, which, according to stories, he loved more than he did his second wife, my step-grandmother. He never borrowed, and never asked for donations from anyone. This image of kyai being prosperous was rekindled every time we visited other clerics.

Each one of them seemed to live in a big house with a big veranda (pendopo), and a large front yard.

At that time I never met a kyai who spoke any foreign language besides Quranic Arabic. My impression was that kyai and Dutch- educated intellectuals lived in two separate worlds. They did not mix. My grandfather admired Bung Karno and Bung Hatta (Indonesian founding fathers Soekarno and Muhammad Hatta) but that was all. And I think that was also the case with other kyai like my grandfather.

Later I discovered that certain kyai and certain Dutch- educated intellectuals did admire each other, but there was no direct interaction between the two groups.

It was only through participation in national political movements that encounters between the two groups was established. But among the kyai such encounters were limited to kyai with national stature. Local kyai like my grandfather were never involved in this kind of "Islam - West" political dialog.

I think it was in the 1970s that my image of kyai began to change. I began to see that there were kyai who were quite open- minded toward ideas coming from the "modern", non-kyai community.

But it was not until 1982, when I opened my office at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) for dialog with religious leaders that I began to see "new varieties" of kyai.

Until then I could not imagine kyai who cracked jokes, who loves poetry and painting, and who resorted to biochemistry in their efforts to define accurately what "purity of water" really meant.

This kind of "modernization" was very important for pesantren (Islamic boarding school) communities. I still remember quite vividly how repugnant I felt when I had to perform wudlu (cleansing oneself before prayers) from a river where human waste was floating. When I had to rinse my mouth from this stream I almost vomited. This happened twice, first in Martapura, South Kalimantan, and later in a village near Borobudur.

On the basis of experiences like these it has become crystal clear to me that kyai who attempted this kind of "modernization" must have gone through very painful cultural journeys in their life.

Still later, I became acutely aware of the enormous changes that have taken place in pesantren and among kyai when I met young clerics who were studying abroad, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, London, Leiden, and Hamburg, among others.

I could not imagine how the world of kyai would look after 20 more years. Certainly by that time there would no longer be kyai who abused the trust of their people (umat).

There would no longer be kyai who indiscriminately married women wanting a child fathered by a kyai they admire. I know from personal experience that it is very hard to resist this kind of temptation. Although I have never been a kyai, merely a secular intellectual, I was offered such "honor" and "privilege" twice in my life.

For a moment I hesitated; and I felt guilty because of that hesitation. Arriving home, I immediately told my wife what happened.

I think, though, that in the future a true kyai worthy of the distinction would have no difficulty declining such "offers" without the slightest hesitation.

I hope I am right in imagining this kind of future ...