I’ve been working on a project in increasing Indonesia’s literacy rates (as in the number of people who actually read books not just merely the number of people who can read books) with Indonesia’s National Library (Perpustakaan Nasional RI) these past few months. Although it’s been fascinating to have hands-on experience working with the Indonesian government, especially when formulating a policy that will affect millions of people, it’s also sad to bear witness to the depravity of how Indonesia’s government does its job. Lacking in financial resources, lacking in adequate human resources, lacking in motivation for any kind of progress, basically lacking in a bunch of other things that will probably fill an A3 sized spreadsheet. I know, I know, i’m giving the National Library a very gloomy picture but I get frustrated easily when talking about literacy and education. So might as well speak the truth.
Speaking of literacy every 8th of September, UNESCO celebrates International Literacy Day. This year’s celebration reminded me when many years ago, as I was struggling through my elementary education, counting the volumes of cubes, memorizing important names and dates of momentous events in Indonesia’s colorful history, that despite the exhausting school subjects that I had to learn, I was never really encouraged to read a book. To actually pick up a book and read the whole book from start to finish all on my own.
Even though I was always told that books are the heart of education, Indonesia’s educational system, oddly enough, didn’t have compulsory books that I needed to read and finish.
I was taught to be able to read of course, but in retrospect it was fairly limited so that at most I would be able to read my schoolwork and undertake the school tests. The ability to read doesn’t necessarily translate into the act of wanting to read more, especially when it comes to reading books.
Reading books, it seemed, was not all a concern of my formal education. One could hope that things have changed nowadays, but sadly how schools approach books these days hasn’t changed much.
When it comes to merely eradicating illiteracy, Indonesia has done a fantastic job since it’s independence. Based on the 2013 survey conducted by the Central Body of Statistics (BPS), people aged 15 – 44 had an illiteracy rate of only 1,61% with high a number of illiterates still concentrated in Papua. However a 2012 study also done by BPS has shown that only 14,08% reads non-fiction books and a piffling 5,01% reads fiction. We shouldn’t be at all surprised.
As I said previously we do not have a compulsory book policy to foster the desire to read, to learn more, to be thirsty of new knowledge. And it will be hard to have people learn independently and continuously if we do not have this hunger to read. There will be a shortage of life-long learners that our government has often sought in producing. Without having these life-long learners the quality of our human resources may deteriorate, as people do not see the need to independently increase their ability and skills to keep pace with the changing times. Learning stops when school finishes.
I was hoping that the new 2013 curriculum would change all this. As it was trumpeted by our government that it would answer all the complexities of our future. It was heralded to foster critical thinking and the ability to solve complex problems. Yet with no compulsory books to read their wishes are nothing but naive. Critical thinking can only grow through independent learning that challenges the self and there will be no independent learning on a much wider scale if we are not encouraged and fostered to read books and information that calls into question our preconceived understandings of everything around us.
The purpose of books is to challenge us, intellectually, morally, and emotionally. They are there to tug our hearts when it has run cold, to enlighten our minds when it has run dry. They are there to give us new insights of the world, of people, of how society works. Books help us find ourselves, and show a glimpse of life that we may live. It gives hope to those who need it the most and it gives us a moment to pause and reflect within a world that pushes us to constantly achieve.
Without encouraging youths to read books, we are not teaching our them to explore, to discover, to see the world in a different light. We are not encouraging them to feel the pain and happiness of others through the reading of personal stories, poems or memoirs. Nor are we teaching them to imagine, to envisage a world that is beyond our current world.
Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu by Pramoedya Anata Toer, Madilog by Tan Malaka, Dibawah Bendera Revolusi by Soekarno, Menuju Manusia Merdeka by Ki Hajar Dewantara just to to name a few, becomes nothing more than books read by intellectual elites who brag about their literary accomplishments in their weekly book discussions.
Maybe Indonesia is not ready for something as “revolutionary” but as simple as reading a book. We have had a sad history of banning (and burning) books. If that is indeed the case, then it just shows that books indeed have the power not only to teach us new knowledge of the world but also to help us see, to help us understand what has been hidden from us all along. Without books we educate our selves to remain blind and ignorant just to store knowledge that’s been imparted to us, not much thinking or questioning needed.
So perhaps Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, was right to say, “education is oppression.” What better way of oppressing the society by educating them to remain blissfully ignorant and uncritical of the world around us?