On Religion and Science in Indonesia


Should Religion stay and Science go from Primary Schools?

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Jakarta Post - October 30, 2012
Debnath Guharoy, Roy Morgan

Should Religion stay and Science go from Primary Schools?

That is no rhetorical question. In Indonesia, it is a very real prospect. Everybody knows that the early years of a child's life are called the formative years of a person's life, with good reason. Those are the years where core instincts and beliefs are embedded into the individual's psyche, almost indelibly, forever.

It could well be said that these are the best of times for the human species. For most people on the planet, the quality of life has improved dramatically in the modern age. The planet itself is still in reasonably good shape, but it looks increasingly threatened from here onwards. In the last century alone, remarkable progress has been made across all walks of life. From education to health, travel to telecommunications, agriculture to architecture, the quantum jumps over each decade have been beyond imagination. But ask any futurist and he or she will tell you that the fun has just begun, we are still medieval in comparison to where we will soon be.

At the cutting edge of this on-going revolution, is science. Not religion. Science will only take us forward. The evidence shows that religion could well take us backwards. The Holy Wars are far from over. The battle-lines appear to be hardening. Against that backdrop, last week's revelation by the Education and Culture Ministry that science will soon be deleted from the country's primary school curriculum is a giant leap backwards.

Science is apparently adding unbearable stress to Indonesia's children in their critically formative years. Have they been teaching rocket science to the little ones while we haven't been watching?

The teaching of religion, on the other hand, will remain untouched. This is a 21st-century proclamation that will add to the redefining of a modern and democratic Indonesia. It will do very little to improve the country's poor record in the field of education. Progressive nations are talking STEM with increasing vigor: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In sharp contrast, Indonesia is seen to be talking blasphemy and religion in recent months. Pronouncements such as these will do little more than encourage the vigilantes of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) to decide who gets to sacrifice cows for Idul Adha and who does not.

All of this sounds more medieval than futuristic. Or is that the future of Indonesia being redefined as we sleep? Will that really affect Indonesia's social, economic and political progress? Wake up, dear reader, before it's too late. Religion is a matter of individual choice in any democracy. The last time I looked at the national emblem, it still had "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" emblazoned on it. The state, via its elected representatives today, has every right to erase it. Parents have every right to decide what their children should or should not believe, till such time the child turns into an adult. Together, the people and their representatives, would do well to decide the kind of Indonesia they would like to see rise tomorrow.

All too often nowadays, it looks like the elected leaders are allowing a loud but shrinking minority of religious conservatives change the course of the nation, completely at odds with the will of the moderate majority. If religion should be taught in schools, does each and every Indonesian have the right to ask "which religion"? If religion must be taught in schools, does each and every Indonesian have the right to ask "does it have to be at the expense of science?"

The challenge for Indonesia's economic future is not unemployment any longer. It is under-employment and low wages. Better wages are invariably linked to better skills. Skills are linked to education, not just the quantity but quality as well. Qualitatively and quantitatively, education in Indonesia leaves much to be desired. Removing science from the curriculum in primary schools cannot be a step in the right direction.

Removing the teaching of English as well is like adding insult to injury. These are giant leaps backward for an Indonesia that will need to compete more aggressively in a shrinking and borderless world. Even while Indonesia has progressed rapidly in socioeconomic terms in the last decade, the fundamental numbers illustrating educational prowess have remained almost static.

A massive 30 percent of the adult population continues to possess only primary school level education. This number has moved down by four percentage points in the last five years, and looks like a trend that will continue. During that time, middle school dropouts have remained static at 30 percent while high-school graduates climbed up four points to 34 percent. People with diplomas or university degrees also went up by one point to 3 percent.

Good news, but not good enough by any stretch of the imagination. Compounding the problem of a largely uneducated workforce, the number of people with a certificate from a polytechnic or vocational institute remains static at 2 percent. If these vitally important numbers do not move steadily upwards, Indonesia's economic muscle will fall far short of its full potential. To reiterate, it is time to STEM the rot. Not time to wind back science. My opinions are influenced by Roy Morgan Single Source, the country's largest syndicated survey. More than 26,000 respondents are interviewed every year, week after week. The data is projected to reflect 87 percent of the population 14 years of age and over.

The writer can be contacted at debnath.guharoy@roymorgan.com

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Published on January 18th, 2013