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Desember 11, 2009

Anthropology in High School: a Diminishing Entity?

By Arif Armansyah*

When I was a high school student, I remember how thrilled I was whenever the anthropology teacher came into the class and started preparing the lesson. I was fond of the lesson, perhaps not to the majority of my classmates though! From my perspectives, the lesson taught me how varied our culture is and how lots of problems which we encountered due to these cultural diversities. Well, the excitement of anthropology took me to England where I pursued advanced education in the same subject there and, it could be stated, that is the reason I wrote this essay.

To begin with, let me first introduce what anthropology is. I know from experience that most people do not have much idea about the subject. Some guess wildly that the subject studies bones or skulls. But the subject that relates to bones and skulls is a field of studies in archeology. There is link between them; in fact, archeology, which studies social artifacts, is the sub-field of anthropology that focuses more to human behavior. Anthropology originated from the Greek word antropos, “human” and, logos, means science. According to Havilland, anthropology is “the study of humankind everywhere, throughout time, seeks to produce useful generalizations about people and their behavior and to arrive at the fullest possible understanding of human diversity.” (Havilland, 1996)

Anthropology itself has been developing rapidly in the West. Historically, the nations of Europe, and later the United States employed the science in order to get more knowledge on the indigenous people so they would be easier to colonize and control. But it must also be admitted that the American anthropologist, Franz Boas, studied every aspect of American Indian tribes, Kwakiutl and Hopi tribes of North America not just for an understanding of how better to control their movement but also to preserve a record of their traditional culture which he taught was fast disappearing. In other part of the world, Seligman was contracted by the British government to perform anthropological research in Sudan (Kuper, 1996). One of our heroes, Teuku Umar was defeated by the Dutch army after their anthropologist, Snouck Hurgronje, conducted an anthropological studies of the Acehnese.

In the 50’s, under the initiative of Prof. Koentjaraningrat, anthropology became part of the faculty of literature, University of Indonesia. During its development, it turned out that anthropological analyses touched social matters more than literature. Therefore, in 1983, it was merged into the faculty of social and political science University of Indonesia. Besides the late Prof. Koentjaraningrat, there are other well known anthropologists, such as the late Prof. Pasurdi Suparlan, James Danandjaja and Amri Marzali, who have contributed a lot to this country’s anthropology development (Indira Permanasari, “50 Tahun Antropologi UI (1):Di Tengah Gaung yang Kian Pudar…”).

However, after for more than 50 years being involved in Indonesia’s development, I have the impression that anthropology appears to have lost its significance. Anthropology is the science that uses comparative studies across culture to gain more understanding about people in their social surroundings. Sometimes, anthropologists are asked by government to contribute their thoughts when making feasibility study. However, their contribution was far from being recognized because their reports or ethnography remain stacked on the desk of bureaucrats and only a few ideas are ever applied in reality. Sadly, in my opinion, our government does not involve anthropologists prior to making any policy decisions in regards to rural areas. This is a pity since many present obstacles to progress, such as the conflict in Papua between the local people and PT. Freeport can be mediated or solved with the help of anthropologists.  Furthermore, in relation to regional autonomy, governors all around Indonesia need to utilize anthropology as a tool to develop their region’s potential in many aspects. I suspect that the regional governments are simply unaware of the potential importance of anthropology for regional development.

One of the problems seems to be the declining importance of anthropology in the educational curriculum. In the 1984 curriculum, in senior high school, anthropology was a subject in the social science program (IPS). However, in both 2004 (KBK) and 2006 (KTSP) curricula, anthropology is no longer part of the social science stream but it is inseparable subject in language program (Bahasa). The reason is unknown but the matter is of great concern to anthropologists. ( Does the change means that anthropology is diminishing in significance? Unfortunately, yes. The moved from the social science to the language program which is only run by a few schools is only one indicator. This decline in anthropological studies in Indonesia paradoxically comes at a time when western countries are beginning to realize its significance for high school students. In England, for example a new A level-the senior high school leaving examination-has just been developed in Anthropology because it is considered an excellent subject to introduce students to understanding societies at home and overseas.

Judging from the standard competencies that must be fulfilled by the students stated in the anthropology book published by Esis (2006), students have to be able to analyze and solely to understand local cultures in relation to national integration. Indeed, to understand local cultures is a must as a way to appreciate them. Appreciation of local culture has been declining at an alarming state. One example is the recent tension between Indonesia and Malaysia over several cultural issues may well be stated as one indicator that we need to strengthen our cultural awareness. Batik, angklung and reog are our cultural heritage that must be preserved and protected. It is sad to see that nowadays children are fonder of Iron Man rather than Gatot Kaca or they prefer to perform Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk rather than traditional Balinese dance. From my point of view, shallow cultural analyses have contributed to this phenomenon and anthropology became an irrelevant subject for policy makers. This situation is worsened by the fact of overlapping standard competencies between anthropology and sociology as well as the lack of anthropology-related teaching resources.

Anthropological analyses have now been developing rapidly and anthropology does not only discussing ethnic groups, dialects or local dance. Language, to some extent, is a large part of culture and it cannot be denied that there is strong connection between anthropology and language. Furthermore, there must be strong reason for merging anthropology into language program in high school. However, discussing culture in anthropology covers much wider spectrum of subjects than just language such as ways of life, political and administrative organization, production and consumption, exchange and markets, family life, religious beliefs, laws as well as values. There is much material for interesting class discussion. Cases that can be discussed in a class range from multiculturalism, assimilation of minorities, conflict management to global migration and civil war. To make the class more exciting, the students can be asked to do practical exercises make ethnography, which is a description of the practices they observe around their school. Without ethnography, anthropologists are similar to surgeons without scalpels. Therefore, it would not do any harm if the students are trained to make ethnography at the early stage.

Furthermore, lacks of information about the future of anthropologists have also contributed to diminishing the significance of anthropology in high school. Lack of information leads to the uncertainty of pursuing career as an anthropologist and this situation creates a stigma for anthropologists who are regarded as “unmarketable”. Unlike in the West at present where anthropologists are now being chased by multinational corporations such as Intel, Citibank or Nokia as experts to further develop their products. A social anthropologist with a PhD in Social Anthropology, Gillian Tett, who had done work in a rural community of Turkistan, was recently appointed a Deputy Editor of the international newspaper, the Financial Times. Using her anthropological skills she had observed the weakness in business organization in the banking sector and had predicted the coming crash. Ethnography, the prominent tool of anthropologists, is now being utilized widely to gain plethora information on consumers’ needs. Actually, this kind of activity has also been used in several Indonesian prominent companies such as Sosro. Before developing their famous beverage product Teh Botol, Sosro did intensive research on Indonesians who always bring hot tea in thermos whenever they go picnicking. So, they developed a product to cater to Indonesians who are very fond of tea (Business Week, 2-9 August 2006).

So, the issue of the decline of anthropology as a high school subject has became a concern for Indonesian anthropologists. It is not arrogances that make them press the issue, but concerned awareness that Indonesia needs anthropology. Furthermore, the subject needs to be taught at the early stage. Anthropology is still being taught in high school though as part of language stream. However due to small number of schools that run language program, it appears that anthropology has lost its charm. On the other hand, without anthropology, from my perspectives, students would be difficult to make deep analyses about people and their culture. In addition, culture is not only about traditional dance, dialects and tribes per se. Contemporary issues in anthropology, nowadays, discusses much wider social aspects such as ideas and values.  Therefore, it is important that anthropology has to be re-positioned back to its original place, the social science program where it needs to be given a more prominent position.  As for the teachers, they have to be trained and equipped with up to date information in relation to contemporary anthropological issues. Anthropology is not a boring subject if it is taught properly.

*Principal of Junior High Level Sekolah Global Mandiri in Cibubur and an anthropologist

One Comment leave one →
  1. Desember 11, 2009 5:45 am

    Hi, this is a comment.
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