A missed opportunity: environmental education in Indonesia’s new curriculum

A missed opportunity: environmental education in Indonesia’s new curriculum

Indonesia’s new school curriculum, writes LYN PARKER, disappoints when it comes to environmental education

In 2013, Indonesia introduced its second new school curriculum since the resignation of former President Suharto in 1998. Back then, with the reinstigation of democracy, it was felt that Indonesia needed a new, more democratic, more locally responsive and relevant curriculum, and this was duly piloted and rolled out in 2006.

The reasons for the introduction of this second democratic curriculum are much less clear: press reports cited government officials and ministers who said that increasing student gang violence and lack of tolerance meant that there was a need for more character building and religious and moral education to create a more peaceful society.

There is vast environmental destruction in Indonesia, and Indonesia is one of the top three largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world—though on a per capita basis, Australia is far more dangerous. Deforestation, the degradation of peatland, and forest fires are largely responsible, but Indonesia is also developing rapidly, as a lower-middle-income country, with growing carbon-based energy and industrial output.

The government acknowledges that more needs to be done about educating the general populace about environmental destruction, climate change and loss of biodiversity, and there have been various government commitments to providing environmental education in Indonesia recently, including in Law No. 32 of 2009 on Environmental Protection and Management. As we come to the end of the UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–14) it might reasonably have been expected that the new curriculum would explicitly make a new commitment to education for environmental sustainability.

Unfortunately, examination of the curriculum reveals that this has not come to pass. This is a competency-based curriculum, and the four core competencies (religious, social, knowledge and application) are cross-curricula. Just looking at the curriculum for senior high school, the first core competency is the religious one: ‘To live and practise the teachings of the religion of the student’. This means that teachers of subjects like maths or dance must teach this competency—and teachers have been puzzled as to how they should do this and how they should assess students.

Human responsibility for environmental destruction is barely touched on in the curriculum for senior high school, mention of environmental damage and problems is scant, and there is no mention of overweening consumption.

While there is minor identification of values, such as caring for the environment and being responsible for the environment, particularly in geography, the propagation of character (budi pekerti) and religious education is so vigorous that true education for sustainability (EfS) is largely neglected.

This is a curriculum that presents a religious worldview: the world is the creation of God, and nature was created for the use of humans. There is a huge emphasis on thanking God for His bounty—often couched in terms of the wealth of natural resources in Indonesia—and on realisation of the greatness of God. In Chemistry Grade X, for instance, the religious competencies to be achieved by students are ‘to realise the order and complexity of electron configuration in the atom as a manifestation of the greatness of The One Great God; and to be thankful for the wealth of nature in Indonesia, in the form of oil, coal and gas as well as various other minerals as a blessing of The One Great God that can be used for the prosperity of the people of Indonesia’. It’s an interesting coming together of creationism and nationalism—in chemistry.

Science and Islam

In the curriculum, the emphasis on the world as the creation of God is not presented as a contest of epistemologies: rather, science and evolution exist within the overall epistemology of God’s creation. This is in line with Islamic views that there are two types of science: one that is atheistic and outside Islam, because it is based on nothing but human observation, experimentation and thought, and the science that is within Islam, which starts with the creation of the universe by God from the free will of God to create. In this latter paradigm, science enables humans to learn about their God-given world, and over the centuries, Islamic scholarship has made a sterling contribution to the development of science. In the curriculum, it is this second type of science that is presented.

Putting aside qualms one might have about creationism and the ability of science and religion to coexist, one might also wonder why the writers of this curriculum did not draw upon the well-known ethical ‘resources’ or values within religions such as Islam and Christianity that could have been mobilised to teach students EfS. In Islam, for instance, there are values such as rahmah (mercy, kindness, compassion), and principles such as justice (adl) and mizan (balance, equilibrium, harmony) in the universe, characterising the unifying principle of tawhid. Several scholars have written about Islamic values and principles from both the Koran and the Hadith that emphasise humans’ responsibility, as God’s stewards appointed to look after the earth, to conserve resources, to value water and even to hold population growth in check.

A missed opportunity

Human responsibility for environmental destruction is barely touched on in the curriculum for senior high school, mention of environmental damage and problems is scant, and there is no mention of overweening consumption. For instance, in Chemistry Grade XI, the focus is on mining, ‘including positive and negative impacts’ and ‘the impact of the burning of hydrocarbons on climate change’, but there is no agent who does the burning or negatively impacts the environment through mining and no connection to consumption. Students who take the maths and sciences stream largely miss out on sustainability education; it is only really those who take the social sciences stream, and within that, geography, who are exposed to true EfS—and then only for three or four classes out of 44 each week.

Given the scale of environmental problems in Indonesia, and in order to avoid the pessimism that can accompany true education about the state of the environment, it would have been helpful to have some positive education about how young people can help and mitigate the disastrous impacts of carbon production and ever-increasing consumption of energy and consumables: more about the possibilities for human conservation, recycling, renewable energy, changing consumption patterns, or other ways to responsibly and sustainably use these ‘resources’.

However, there is little evidence to show that things are better in Australian schools. Environmental education is supposed to be a cross-curricula priority in the new Australian curriculum, and all the evidence points to low teacher awareness of this priority, as well as low levels of confidence about their own knowledge and ability to embed this priority in different subject areas. It would appear that the UN’s identification of Education for Sustainable Development as a priority has largely fallen on deaf ears.

Deforestation of peat swamp forest for oil palm plantation in Sumatra (Wakx via Wikimedia Commons).

Lyn Parker is a professor in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. She leads a team that is undertaking a three-year research project on environmental education and environmentalism in Indonesia, funded by an ARC Discovery Grant. The other team members are Pam Nilan (University of Newcastle) and Greg Acciaioli (UWA), Yunita Winarto and Suraya Afiff (Universitas Indonesia) and two PhD students at UWA, Kelsie Prabawa-Sear and Athisia Muir. A version of this article was presented at the Asian Studies Association of Australia conference.

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