Wed, 23 Aug 2000

Meanings of educational professionalism

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): When a young journalist asked my opinion about the criteria for a "professional minister of education", I could not immediately reply. I was wavering between giving a simple answer that could have been misleading, and a good answer containing thought structures that I felt difficult to convey on the phone. I decided to give a concise, but accurate answer.

I said the appointment of Cabinet ministers was a political decision. Therefore, when our political decisionmakers said the next Cabinet would be a "Cabinet of professionals", we will have to comprehend this statement in a political sense.

"Professionalism" means different things to different people. Practitioners of professions set the standards of professionalism in their field on the basis of a set of academic or occupational criteria, whereas politicians may choose to understand the term in quite a different sense. The term "professional education", for instance, may denote one set of meanings to educators, but to politicians, the word may have quite a different meaning.

To educators, the concept of "educational professionalism" may cover a wide variety of educational expertise, ranging from expertise in diagnosing and remedying learning disabilities to expertise in analyzing the philosophical foundations of various educational practices and traditions. But I am quite certain that these are not the kinds of educational professionalism our political decisionmakers had in mind. To them "professional educators" are people who -- and this is just my guess -- can be entrusted with the job of transforming our educational system from its present horrid condition to a system capable of providing the young generation with intellectual astuteness and ethos that can meet the challenges of life they will encounter in the future.

What are the essential characteristics of such professional educators?

It should be evident from my view above that this genre of educators must have vision about the contour and character of our schools in the future. Certain politicians may prefer to employ the word "professional educators" to denote persons whose expertise consists merely of a command of basic educational jargons, knowledge of basic educational statistics and ability to express the view of a group in a lucid political rhetoric. Such politicians are toying with ideas that can endanger the future of the country and the nation. Politicians with sincere concern regarding the future of the nation must refute and reject this particular view. Failure to stop political maneuvers to impose this insufficiently reasoned view is a betrayal to the young generation.

The problem to be solved now is determining the criteria that should be met to identify the persons who are politically acceptable for the job of "professional minister of education".

My subjective view as a person who oscillates back and forth between education and politics is that such a person must first of all have a clear idea regarding the measures that must be taken to move our system into a transformation process. Such a professional must also have a vision concerning the type of leadership that should be exercised to transform our schools from being at the bottom end of a central bureaucracy to local social institutions that represent the aspirations of the local community with regard to the future of the young generation.

It is necessary at this juncture to analyze one sticky issue that has plagued our educational system for decades. This is the issue of developing a curriculum that has a sound philosophical base, a clear design and a cohesive structure. Any professional educator worthy of the name will understand that if one wants to succeed in preparing students for life-long learning and a productive life in society, it cannot be done through a curriculum comprising subject matters that are not interconnected in any coherent way. Good curriculum consists primarily of subject matters, each of which has an integrative power.

Viewed in a very fundamental way, such a curriculum is an educational program that prepares the young generation for three stages of life; the ability to make a living, ability to lead a meaningful life and the ability to ennoble life. Our life as a nation at present contains too many vulgar thoughts and inhuman acts that make many of us feel degraded.

What do our students have to learn to achieve this goal? Again, fundamentally stated, they need to have sufficient knowledge about three things; knowledge about their physical environment, knowledge about their social and cultural environments and knowledge about themselves. This last item has been neglected in our schools. We have forgotten that no matter how smart and how knowledgeable a person may be, if he or she does not have a proper understanding of his or her own self, he or she is bound to become a misfit in his or her environment.

Knowledge about physical, social and cultural environments is a very broad intellectual domain that is continuously expanding. It is impossible for any educational system to make students master all the fundamentals within this broad field of knowledge. Knowledge about oneself is also a never-ending process. We as human beings are continuously changing, and the understanding of oneself has to be continuously reexamined and reformulated.

It has been a common understanding among professional educators that the basic task of schools is to stimulate and guide students to acquire a learning capability, which in essence comprises scholastic skills that later in life will function as intellectual instruments for mastering whatever one needs or cares to know.

A professional minister of education must know that this kind of transformation will never materialize if the central bureaucracy operates alone. Such transformation will take place only if it involves the entire system, and if each subsystem has the feeling that it is consulted in formulating the goal of the transformation process. Within the context of regional autonomy in the future, this means that the professional minister and his or her staff must provide a transforming leadership to educational authorities in the various provinces and districts throughout the country. Making speeches, issuing decrees and giving instructions from the center will not suffice.

Do we have educators who are sufficiently enlightened about the political aspects of the ministerial job?

I am sure we have. If only our political decisionmakers are willing to look honestly on our educational horizon, I am sure that a number, though not too many, of personalities will be identified. At this stage of our development it is up to our political decisionmakers to know whether it is still possible to revive, rejuvenate and reinvigorate our educational system.

The writer is a social and educational observer based in Jakarta.