Notes on SMAN 5 Kupang

Most students at SMAN 5 Kota Kupang live inside of the city. A few in the 11th and 12th grades are originally from small villages further inland, but have already moved in with relatives within the city boundaries. As of last year, the government has mandated that no public school student shall attend a school farther than 3km from his or her residence. The point, evidently, is to prevent overcrowding at "preferred" or "reputable" schools and to create a more equitable distribution of the student population in general.

School costs 100.000 IDR per month, paid every three months. About a third of the students receive a government scholarship amounting to 1.000.000 IDR per year, but my principal informs me that an unknown quantity of other students and families, who would otherwise qualify for the scholarship, choose not to apply for it because they do not want to be considered poor. Instead, they sacrifice what they have to in order to make ends meet, perhaps missing some payments here or there and making up for them later.

I have made a few general observations about school culture. The most basic is that girls outnumber boys and are generally more "well-behaved" and "studious." Girls are also considered and treated as such by the adults. So we have a feedback loop, from which both girls and boys must suffer. It is very obvious how boys suffer though—they internalize the fact that they are troublemakers and less capable scholars because of differential treatment, and so they learn to play the role. The face grows to fit the mask.

Specialization begins in grade school and there are generally three tracks: the science track (IPA), the social studies track (IPS) and the language track (Bahasa). What is most tragic is that I have listed these tracks in order of prestige. The longstanding stereotype is that, again, the smartest and most motivated students (boys and girls) enter the science track and that the humanities are for the leftovers, the dregs, the hopeless cases—anybody who doesn't have what it takes to study science. Actually, this is more than just a stereotype. Literal policy has been built up around it in other Indonesian institutions besides public schools. Employers look more favorably upon IPA students. So do universities. And in general, there are more opportunities for IPA students. You are simply barred from considering certain majors, jobs, and/or career paths if you weren't on the science track.

I have asked about the origins of this stereotype in Indonesian society, but cannot get a straight answer, which doesn't surprise me. Who knows where it started? In the end, I think it reflects a nefarious but extremely common and fundamental misunderstanding that exists throughout the modern world, in developed and developing societies alike: that the STEM fields are the true key to progress and are worth more than the humanities. No scientist has ever had to justify his or her pursuit. But humanists are always trying to prove that what they think about and produce are in fact valuable to society. The value of the humanities, at any rate, is less obvious to most people. And the irony is that the people and the societies who stand to benefit most from a healthy dose of the humanities are, invariably, the ones who find their value the most dubious.

SMAN 5 Kota Kupang shows some potential though. My principal is a fairly worldly man. He has implemented a few forward-thinking policies, including the deliberate spreading of "good" and "bad" students throughout all of the three academic tracks. I have no way to verify this, for the time being, and do not yet know how "good" and "bad" are quantified. But it's encouraging to see my principal explicitly reject a bad idea, at least in theory. He and the other teachers have also agreed to forbid any student who has failed one grade from moving onto the next and to stop accepting mid-year transfer students from other public high schools throughout the city. These are related policies aimed at improving accountability. According to my principal (and I believe him), too many students are used to fudging their scores and gaming the system and doing whatever it takes to pass (besides actually studying, of course). If one school won't pass them, they transfer to another. Nobody fails. There are no real consequences. My principal wants to draw a line in the sand.

How effective are any of these policies? It's difficult to say. But the cynic in me is inclined to say not very, no matter how forward-thinking they are. It's not just pure cynicism either—it's observable reality. Just the other day, virtually the entire student body was walking around with their latest report cards in hand, accosting teachers at every opportunity and requesting grade changes. "On what basis?" I inquired of a few students. "Because the score is wrong!" they replied. "Yes, but how do you know that the score is wrong?" I pressed. "Because in Indonesia, you cannot let your scores drop—they must improve, if you want to get into university." What's funny is that most teachers seem to be equally unable to speak for the meaning and the integrity of whatever numbers appear on those report cards. They would grumble and rant and generally make a show of being very put out by these requests. But there did not appear to be much re-calculation or verification going on and almost all of the time, the signature would be handed over and the grade would change.

There were a few notable exceptions though. One girl, seeking to improve her biology grade, approached one of her male teachers in the teacher's room. Evidently fed up with the steady stream of grade-grubbers, or with some other annoyance that I had not yet perceived, the teacher slapped her squarely across the face and yelled at her to get out. I'd already seen some ear-pinching and switch-brandishing, but this went well beyond, and it made my blood boil. I followed the girl out, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, over and over again in English, "I'm sorry." She began to cry quietly to herself.

Aspirations are just that—aspirational. And policies only ever go so far. Reality—the weight of culture and habit—is what you are up against on any given day. It is a heavy weight.

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