Monday, 10 May 2010

A Good Education

I was talking to the Deputy Minister of Education, Fasli Djalal, the other day, asking him about the government’s plans to improve the state of our national education seeing that the department has been getting quite a significant increase in their budget, and he told me that the amount of funds allocated for fixing the quality of the country’s education is actually less by two trillion rupiahs this year. And why is that? Well, apparently the two trillion rupiah from the budget will be used to increase the welfare of the country’s lecturers and professors who, as we all know, are under appreciated in this country.

Being an offspring of a university professor myself, I heartily agree that the teaching and academic professions should be held in greater value than they currently are considering how much we rely on our educators to churn out intelligent, bright and knowledgeable young men and women instrumental in shaping the character and destiny of this country.

However, I worry about the impact that giving additional benefits to professors has on the academic world itself. An obvious moral hazard of this sort of policy is the pursuit of academic positions purely for material and status reasons and not out of a desire for genuine academic achievement. This could be seen in the recent string of plagiarism scandals committed by the nation’s top academicians in order to climb up the academic ladder and gain the title of professorship, thus entitling them to all sorts of extra perks that goes with the status.

This is hardly exemplary behaviour for an education system that already fosters a culture of cheating since elementary school level that puts more emphasis on passing exams rather than giving pupils a proper education and quality learning experience, to the university students that earn their diploma by outsourcing their thesis to paid services and lecturers who get the students to do their research for them and pass it off as their own work.

Exams, papers, thesis and diplomas are not seen as milestones in a long process of learning and pursuit of knowledge, but commodities that could be bought and sold according to the needs. Meanwhile, those who have the knowledge and skills of the required commodity, be it term paper or final year thesis, are quite willing to offer their services for payment. Others, in order to fulfil a certain requirement, like wanting to run for parliament for example, simply resort to buying fake diplomas. Education becomes no longer a process but a status symbol that could be gained through shortcuts and dissimulation.

When this practice becomes the rule rather than the exception and embedded in the culture and system of our national education, then is it so surprising that we continue to be a nation mired in corruption? After all, a corrupt mind and corrupt behaviour is much more dangerous and insidious than any form of material corruption.

I have never bought the idea that it is low salary and unequal distribution of income that makes this country so high up in the most corrupt nation list. Every year the civil servants and public officials go through salary increases that eat up most of the state budget without much visible improvement in their quality of work. If anything the more benefits they get, the more they want and the quicker they want it in any possible way they could get away with.

Meanwhile, other countries probably wonder how this seemingly religious nation continues to be one of the world’s most corrupt countries. I certainly do. For me, the answer is obvious. It is because we continue to nurture and reward this type of mental corruption. And when our own educators themselves are role models of this type of behaviour then what hope do we have that our children would be paragons of virtue.

Mental corruption contaminates everything that it touches, turning habits into character and a tendency into the norm. It is also the basis of all other forms of corrupted behaviour from simple lack of discipline, laziness in thinking to a tolerance of moral laxity and ethical deficiencies. Mental corruption fosters low standards and disregard for merit-based achievement and appreciation of hard work and efforts. It also rewards deviousness over integrity, shamelessness over honesty.

However, I do believe that a good education can change this mind set over time. And I’m not talking about the sort of education you get in a classroom and you have to memorise as multiple choices to get good grades. It is a constant daily education that starts with parents teaching their children good manners and to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. For elementary school teachers to praise their pupils for efforts, industry and enthusiasm and not simply for being compliant and well behaved. For children to hold others in respect, to respect differences and moreover, to have respect for themselves and set themselves high standards.

The question is, who is there to teach the parents or the teachers if our educators and lawmakers too are themselves in need of a good education.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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