Sat, 09 Oct 1999

Education for a civil society

By Mark Heyward

BOGOR, West Java (JP): A panel discussion to mark World Teachers' Day in Jakarta centered on a challenging theme: Teachers as a force for social change.

What kind of social change are we talking about? One significant change required not only here in Indonesia but globally is the development of a civil society.

The civil society is one where the rule of law prevails, where people can trust that they will be treated fairly by their government, their institutions and their fellow citizens. The civil society is created by informed and responsible citizens. Citizenship means acting in a way that considers the rights of others, whatever their national, religious or ethnic background. The role of the teacher is to prepare the students of today to become the citizens of tomorrow.

Development of informed and responsible citizens is the most significant job of the teacher; this is what makes the teacher an agent of social change. Imagine a society in which everyone knew the rules, and everyone understood the rights and responsibilities not only of themselves, but of the entire community. There would be no need for violence, dishonesty, corruption or oppression. There would be no need for abuse or violent conflict of any sort between individuals, ethnic groups or nations.

This may sound like utopian dreaming, and it probably is. But it is the role of teachers to dream, to envision the future and to pass on that hope and that vision to their students -- together with the practical tools to help them create it. That is what being a force for social change means.

Citizenship is primarily about rights and responsibilities. Some sections of the Asian community have tended to become nervous about too much emphasis on individual rights. This is a Western cultural construct, it is sometimes claimed, and focuses too much on individual freedoms. In Asian societies the focus is on collective rights -- the rights of the group -- rather than individual rights.

There are differences between cultures; the West does tend to emphasize individualism and Asian societies collectivism. The concept of citizenship, however, is one that can cross these cultural divides. Citizenship implies not only individual rights but responsibilities toward the group. The concept of the civil society means learning to consider the needs of the group and of fellow citizens. For every right there is a corresponding responsibility.

The job of teachers is to teach students what this means. Learning to be a good citizen begins in the home and in the classroom. What do children learn in kindergarten? They probably learn the most important lessons of their life. They learn to share, to take turns, to treat others well, to follow simple rules -- basically they learn to live and work in a cooperative community.

As children grow older, this learning expands to the school, the wider community, the nation and ultimately to the globe.

An example is found in classrooms in international schools, where the rules of conduct are typically not imposed by the teacher but are developed collaboratively by the students and the teacher.

The teacher does not say "Do this because I tell you to!" or "Do this because the rules tell you to!" What the teacher says is "Do this because this is what we have agreed to do".

Teachers work with their classes to develop shared objectives. They are then reformulated as rights and corresponding responsibilities: We have the right to learn, so there is a corresponding responsibility to study hard, and not to interrupt the teacher or other students. We have the right to be safe, and a corresponding responsibility to behave safely. We have the right to respect, and the responsibility to show respect to teachers and fellow students.

What do students learn from this? They learn that being a member of a community means accepting responsibilities. The development of agreements like this, in which rules are stated as rights and responsibilities, sets the scene for a supportive school environment. It is an environment in which students are free from harassment and bullying and able to focus on their studies.

It also teaches students about citizenship and how to live in a civil society.

What kind of a future do we want? Will that future reflect the vision of an apocalyptic clash of cultures -- between East and West, Muslim and Christian, for example -- as described by Samuel Huntington in his well-known book The Clash of Civilizations (1996)?

Or will our future reflect the vision of a cooperative and pluralistic global civil society? The answer will largely be determined by the extent to which today's students learn the competencies, understandings and values necessary for citizenship and a civil society.

The risk of societies -- local, national and global -- fragmenting along ethnic as well as political divides is increasing. Here in Indonesia it seems that the task is urgent. We watch almost daily television broadcasts of students brawling or staging violent protests.

Arif Rahman, a lecturer from the Jakarta Teachers' Training Institute, has warned that students are learning that violence is the normal means of settling disputes.

"We have become accustomed to settling our problems by forcing our will (upon others) and neglecting dialog as a means for the management of conflict," Arif was reported as saying last week.

The teaching profession has a proud record in Indonesia. It is through education that a common national language has been taught, that a shared national vision has been developed and that high levels of literacy and numeracy have been achieved. These are remarkable achievements in a short 50 years. International teachers also have a proud record. We are at the forefront of a movement toward global citizenship and intercultural literacy in education.

The time has come for the next step: the development of a civil society -- here in Indonesia -- and a global civil society. To achieve this, teachers must focus on teaching citizenship. They must become a force for social change.

The writer is a private consultant in education and training based in Bogor, West Java.