Founder of Omong-Omong Media

Education as Freedom

Okky Madasari

5 min read

With keen eyes which are seemingly gazing without blinking, 11-year old Sita confidently retold her version of my most recent children novel Mata dan Nyala Api Purba (Mata and the Flame of the Ancient Fire) in front of more than 100 of her friends and some teachers gathered to welcome me in the school’s yard on that bright Tuesday morning (November 29).

While she could not hide her excitement to meet me, the fifth grader who just read the novel her mother bought her only several days ago looked composed and unfazed, fluently summing up the story of Matara’s final adventure. “Matara is not a child anymore… she is now a teacher,” she began while smiling at me as if showing her appreciation.

It was such a sweet surprise – even a shock – for me to find out in my tour across East and Central Java that these students from an elementary school in far away village – basically in the middle of nowhere – read my books and manage to get me. Nothing can make me prouder than meeting my readers and knowing they enjoy the books.

The school, SDN Banyuripan in Bantul regency, Jogjakarta, seems like an ordinary small public school – just like any other Indonesia elementary school funded by the state in regions inhabited by poor families – and the students gathered to meet me in the yard plus five or six teachers and the u-shape old building and old fence circling the yard are all the school has.

But the character of the students, and especially the teachers, are nothing ordinary.

Sita is probably one of the smartest students in the school but she is hardly alone to have confidence and free mind as almost all of her friends show similar character and mindset.

And it all begins with their teachers who are willing to expose the children with all possibilities despite all the infrastructure limitation and pressure from officials and parents to just focus on getting the students high marks in all the school’s subjects disregarding any other elements that will make the children a free, creative and better human being.

These teachers, led by the schools’s fifth grader teacher Isyani, an international relations graduate but decided to take another diploma in education, seem to understand that the fundamental needs of elementary students would not solely be achieving high marks but development of mentality, creativity and free thinking, maximizing the hype of the so-called “Kurikulum Merdeka” (Curriculum of Freedom), a national agenda pushed by Nadiem Makarim, the country’s minister for education and culture, and allowing them reason with parents and local education officials, who mostly still do not understand, the word “freedom” that modifies the name of the current curriculum.

Pursuing such a mentality is not an easy task within such an environment, but against all odds, these teachers manage to carry on with what they think best for their students, a believe which is possibly very much in line with what Nadiem has in mind when proposing and implementing the curriculum.

“While we know that achieving target of getting high marks is important, we should not make it as the sole objective of educating students. The process, high literacy and exposure are as important,” Isyani told me as she took me inside a class to continue my session with the students.

As a mother whose daughter attending elementary public school in Singapore, a country with one of the world’s best education, SDN Banyuripan – considering all aspects – has been doing good, at least when I look at the students’ confidence and character, basic ingredients for them to grow better.

As strange as it might be, Isyani is actually echoing what legendary rock band Pink Floyd’s message in “Another Brick in the Wall” more than 50 years ago when the band proclaimed: “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control…”

Or it bring out spirit what Paulo Freire want to say in his “Education, the Practice of Freedom” several years earlier. Or more recently, SDN Banyuripan is trying to bring to life some of bell hooks’ ideas in “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom”.

Whatever the case, they all believe that freedom as a method, process and goal, must be the center of every education and school’s curriculum.

Such a vision is very much captured by Hadi Tjahjanto, Indonesia’s former Armed Forces Commander, and currently the minister of agrarian and spatial planning, when he said “knowledge is power but character is more (important)”.

This is possibly what in his mind when the four-star Air Force general helped in 2018 founded SMA Pradita Dirgantara, where I ended up giving speech about literacy just a week before my session at SDN Banyuripan.

Free thinking and military are hardly two compatible concepts. But the school is trying to get the best of both worlds, making some noise within the constellation of Indonesia’s private schools in the process. In just three years of its establishment, the senior high school have blazed into the upper echelon of the country’s school ranking, occupying this year the third position out of thousands senior high schools across the archipelago based on ranking released by the University Entrance Test Body (LTMPT), one of the country’s most credible ranking institutions.

It enters itself in Indonesia’s Museum of Records (MURI) when more than 82 percent of its first graduates managed to pass university’s entrance tests inside and outside of Indonesia. Beside in many of the country’s top universities, its graduates now can be found in top universities in the US, Canada, Europe and Singapore.

Despite having a huge complex just in front of the Solo’s Adi Soemarmo Airport, Pradita Dirgantara, which maintains its close relations – albeit an informal one – with the Air force, is well aware that its biggest investments are on its students and teachers.

The school’s leadership is striving to embark on unbelievably nobel mission: providing full scholarship to the country’s smartest and gifted teenagers wherever they live within the archipelago in a time when quality education is becoming out of reach for many Indonesian families. The fact is simple: Pradita Dirgantara is now the country’s only school that provides full scholarship to all of its students, having now a total of around 450 students, while trying to continue to accept 150 students per year. All the students are also provided with free room and other facilities during their time in the school.

In term of quality, Pradita Dirgantara is now one of the best, if not the best, private school in Indonesia, scoring in 2022 the second highest mark in computer-based test held by state test body LTMPT , behind only Surabaya’s St Louis Catholic School, but above many elite and traditional heavy weight schools across the archipelago.

To provide some perspectives, with its quality and so much it has achieved, the school can easily charge an entrance fee of US$10,000 to each of new students. And this excludes the monthly fees. If for instance the owners want to monetize, they can easily get US$1 million per year.

While many have expressed doubts that such a generous practice is sustainable, Nanny Hadi Tjahjanto, the wife of Hadi Tjahjanto and who is now overseeing the school’s operation, guarantees that the school would continue to provide scholarship for its students for many years to come.

“I will do whatever I can to maintain the full scholarship,” she told me after my session at the school.

That’s a huge news for Indonesia, whose low quality of its education compared to its regional peers has been under heavy criticism.

With fees for private schools which rising through roof – often in range of 100 million to 200 million rupiah – most gifted Indonesian children have been prevented to get quality education, creating increasing intellectual gap between the haves and have nots, and later increasing opportunity gaps in career and professions between the two groups.

Pradita Dirgantara is an effort to close such gaps, giving Indonesia’s low income families hope for better future. It is in this light that we should highly commend Pradita Dirgantara’s leaders.

This is exactly what a liberating movement or educating effort or school system is supposed to be. It provides opportunities and possibilities.

And Pradita Dirgantara seems to strive to provide all possibilities, with its students can become anything they want.

“School must be enjoyable for students. Otherwise, what is it for?” said Dwi A. Yuliantoro, the school’s director for development, in a conversation before I started my speech last month.

Back to Hadi Tjahjanto’s assessment on the importance of character, it is clear by now that without free thinking and freedom it is impossible to develop a strong character. And Pradita Dirgantara simply rides its leader’s vision.

Together with other elite and expensive schools across Indonesia, and schools in the villages like SDN Banyuripan, Pradita Dirgantara are creating Indonesia’s better and smarter future elites than the country is having today.

Whatever the way and the motives – for business or social – at the heart of all things is people. All of the initiatives in this educating movement depend on people – from owners to teachers – and it is an investment in people, human beings. And as in all endeavors with people, it only works if it allow them to be free and creative without limitation – freedom from fear and freedom to choose all possibilities.

If a nation is carried and determined by the capacity of its elites – as history already tells us – then Indonesia is not in such a bad shape after all.

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Editor: Ghufroni An’ars

Okky Madasari
Okky Madasari Founder of Omong-Omong Media

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