The worrying politicisation of school textbooks in Indonesia: The Jakarta Post columnist

A policeman holds a rifle at location where a suspected supporter of ISIS attacked policemen in Tangerang, Indonesia.
A policeman holds a rifle at location where a suspected supporter of ISIS attacked policemen in Tangerang, Indonesia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Setiono Sugiharto

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

A recent report on the dissemination of radical ideology through school textbooks provides clear evidence that every aspect of life is always political and subject to being politicised, with education being no exception.

This is what is known as "identity politics" - who and what we are matters and shapes our constellation of beliefs toward values, religions, knowledge, and cultures we embrace.

It has been reported in the newspaper that Islamic schoolbooks for seventh and eighth graders spread violent anti-Semitic ideology and stereotypes, calling non-Muslims and Jews kafir (infidel) and musyrik (polytheist). Ironically, these books are published under the auspices of the Culture and Education Ministry. 

Education seems to be a powerful system to build and inculcate positive character into our students. Respect and tolerance toward religious and racial diversity can be instilled through school curricula and textbooks.

Yet, it is an equally powerful means to bludgeon students into accepting extreme or violent ideology. Messages of hatred, aversion, and hostility can be effectively disseminated through school textbooks and formal teaching instruction. 

School textbooks are written highly selectively to transmit biased knowledge, values and culture to sustain the domination of the power structure of dominant religious, social, and political groups. 

Whose knowledge and values are represented in the textbooks is very much dependent upon the identity politics of the authors. If the author belongs to more dominant religious and cultural groups, then it is highly likely that the content of the books represent values that side with their religion and cultures. 

Likewise, the exposure to the supremacy and extolment of dominant religious and cultural values can instill in the students the mindset that it is these values that matter and contribute to social and political life. And the exclusion of the values of the less dominant religions and cultures in the textbooks might render them insignificant to the improvement of current social and political realities. 

All of this is relevant to the idea of the "hegemonic selective tradition" in instructional material like children's literature and school textbooks. Such an idea is helpful in accounting for the recurring attitudes of religious intolerance and bigotry among school children. 

Under this idea, if the students are exposed - via instructional materials (i.e. textbooks) they read - to radical messages that disparage or belittle less dominant religious, social and cultural groups, then they are more likely to develop negative stereotypes of these groups. 

The idea of book censorship, intended to filter out the accuracy, relevance and ethics of book content, while well-intentioned, is often at odds with the biases of those who have vested interests in it and those who have certain political agendas. The fact that a dozen cases of pornographic and religiously intolerant content found in school textbooks has thus far escaped censorship testifies to the small role of such censorship endeavours. 

Thus, while we cannot expect the content of school textbooks to be value-free, but rather both ideologically and politically loaded, we can surely invite students to bring their own ideological biases and personal experiences and exercise their identity politics to scrutinise the available textbooks that represent biases and stereotypes toward certain races, religions and cultures.

They need to be well-informed that ideologies are a contested notion, and that the messages conveyed in school textbooks may not represent the whole truth of what is being stereotyped.

Students also need to be critically conscious that all instructional materials they receive for learning are a politicised and biased by-product that may favor, or even may be used to sustain, the interests of certain religious and political agendas. 

To this end, to counter the politicisation of textbooks, students can be encouraged to be reflective by pondering questions such as: Whose knowledge, values and interests are represented in the textbooks? Do they represent the agendas of certain religious and political groups, to the exclusion of a broader perspective? Are there spaces for the inclusion of one's own ideology and personal experiences and biases? To what extent are one's religious and cultural values legitimate in the presence of more dominant religious and cultural values? And, can one counter the misrepresentation of less dominant religious values in light of one's identity politics?

Amid the radical ideology bludgeoned into student by the school textbooks, these questions should serve as pedagogical activism that raises not only students' critical thinking, but more importantly their critical consciousness. 

* The writer teaches at the Faculty of Education and Language, Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.