Fri, 14 Oct 1994

Education not immune to political meddling

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): "If you want to be rich, move into trade. If you want to be powerful, go to politics. But if you want to be happy, become a teacher." This is advice I got from a friend a long time ago.

"What if I want to be rich, powerful, and happy?" I asked.

"Then you are a greedy person, always wanting more. You will never be really happy!"

I was already in the teaching profession at the time, and poor. My friend was in the trading business, rich, and seemingly not happy. This was quite apparent when he was among his intellectual friends, listening to our discussions about lofty issues like theories of development, formats of democracy, or differences in the concept of power among several cultures. I noticed that in moments like this he looked at his intellectual friends with envy.

I think it was this personal experience which made him think the teaching profession offers an unparalleled happy life. This friend of mine was not alone in his naive thought about education. I met many people in my life who think that in education there is no competition, no rough elbowing among each other, no politicking, and no dirty intrigues. These people do not realize that in education there is cheating as well as teaching.

The most naive thought among ideas like this is the one which asserts that in education everything is pure idealism, completely free from the scheming which characterizes so much the world of politics. The result of this naive outlook is that prospective teachers are not prepared to deal with political problems that may come across their professional life later on. It is these teachers who usually become the first victims of educational politicking.

Consider the following. There was a time in this country when girls were prohibited to wear veils and scarves at government schools. A great number of people were furious because of this ruling. Who became the immediate target of this public outcry? The teachers at school, especially principals.

Later on the political climate changed. Girls were allowed to wear Islamic dress at public schools. Then problems of the opposite kind arose. Some teachers intimidated girls not wearing veils and scarves. In one instance a teacher forbade girls to attend his classes if they were not "properly dressed."

In another instance a department head in a university was terrorized by students and part of the teaching staff because she refused to comply with the "majority request" that she dress herself in a way that befitted a Moslem woman.

There are other, more serious forms of political infighting within the educational world. Questions on "sensitive subjects" like Religious Instruction, Civics Education, and History can never be divorced from politics.

Decisions about textbooks to be used throughout the nation have also been influenced by political considerations. And when it comes to big issues like national curriculum, academic freedom, and the appointment of key personnel within the system, the consideration is always primarily political, and not "professional."

The harsh reality is that anywhere in the world education always operates within a political context. Any educational operation that ignores this fact is doomed to fail. The question is how should educators and the educational leadership look at the political situation? Should they merely look at the surface, or should they look deeper into the covert side of the observable? Should they merely look at the present, or should they also look into the probable future?

If it is still true that any real educator is an idealist, then I think that those active within the educational world should be enlightened about the real political environment of their profession. They should understand the present, and have an idea about the future.

Perceived in this way, I think that Abdurrachman Wahid has been providing the right leadership to his followers, the kyai's -- Islamic scholars cum teachers -- within his organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama. He is just trying to make them politically enlightened.

The writer is rector of Muhammadiyah University, Jakarta.