The Myth of Meritocracy – Interrogating The Role of Privilege in the Indonesian Education System

In the rise in efforts to reform the Indonesian education system, one must first rethink who the system inherently privileges and disadvantages simultaneously. 

Ditulis oleh: Callista Saputra
Disunting oleh: Zania Putri & Fauzan Abdul
Ilustrasi oleh: Btari

In A Talk to Teachers, James Baldwin outlines that “the paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

Growing up, I have always felt a strange sense of alienation when considering my own educational background. My education has always been a valuable part of my upbringing, as it shaped the prism in which I am able to see the world. Having gone to both national and international school, the stark difference between the two continues to linger on my mind. Personally, my experience in national school was heavily based on strict rules that place importance on memorisation and absolute methods of learning. Students were pushed to compete against each other under a supposedly universal curriculum instead of allowing room for debate and acknowledge that everyone’s skillset is different. As someone who is passionate in the arts and humanities field, I found myself feeling out of touch with the curriculum which places more focus on mathematical and science related subjects. At the time, I didn’t think I could ever be anything more than what was prescribed to me. Yet simultaneously, I don’t ever want to recall my experience in the national system as purely negative, as it gave me the ability to cultivate a strong sense of national identity and also form strong friendship bonds that I still keep to this day. My heart still warms whenever I look back on the times spent joking around on the way back from the morning flag ceremony, or the group cheers I did before performing for various national competitions. Although national school was a highly memorable phase when I first had to undergo major turning points during adolescence, a part of me still felt constrained by the strong grip the national curriculum had on my passions and curiosity about the world around me. 

However, my situation was completely flipped when I moved to a highly elite international school which encourages critical thinking and provided a variety of subjects. My interest in subjects such as politics and literature was finally encouraged and facilitated with resources, instead of being looked down on and discouraged. For the first time in my life, I felt that I no longer had the pressure to fit in into a particular learning style, and I was finally free to be whoever I wanted to be. My dreams of becoming an influential journalist or writer suddenly didn’t seem to be so far away anymore. It was also a time when I was encouraged to read and think critically about the issues that plague the real world, and this was highlighted by one particular trip during my time there. 

Early on during my experience at the school, I applied to be part of a Model United Nations competition in Singapore, where I would be competing against other international school students from various parts of South East Asia. I was surrounded by other students who could afford to speak perfect accentless English instead of their mother tongue, and who felt entirely comfortable to debate extensively about topics such as racial discrimination and poverty. I distinctly remember giving out my first speech during the competition. I talked about the persisting issue of tax evasion in less developing countries, and the need for more progressive taxation and government regulations. I didn’t necessarily win any award or prizes, but I recall feeling a sense of pride and power I had wielding the words and knowledge I had to an audience of people who were well versed in the game of intellectualism. Yet the moment also awakened an uneasy feeling inside me. Here I was, speaking about an issue that would never affect me negatively first hand, and so I realised that to students such as myself and others who have the privilege of going to expensive and elite schools, global issues are merely a matter of discourse, instead of situations with real life consequences. I finally understood how that microscopic experience can function to illustrate the bigger issue that plagues society: that there is no such thing as a meritocracy, as the people who control the conversation around political issues and have the power to influence them are those who have the privilege of upward social mobility, instead of people who are directly affected by such circumstances. In that split second I pondered whether engaging in expensive school trips made me more well versed in the conflicts outside my bubble of privilege; or whether it just worked to validate my delusion that if I was knowledgeable enough, I could speak for anyone I wanted? 

To this day, I struggle to come to terms with the internal turmoil of seeing my education background as both a form of liberation and limitation. I have witnessed and understood how access to education that places its utmost importance in critical thinking can function as a powerful means of social consciousness; although the tragedy of it all is that such an education is merely limited to the consumption of foreigners and the Indonesian elite. This is the great hypocrisy of the Indonesian education system; in which the best resources and facilities available are built to benefit the top 1% instead of society as a whole. Thus in an effort to encourage Indonesia’s growth as a nation, one must first dismantle the notion that a meritocracy exists in society and work to reform the education system to benefit all instead of a select few. 

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *