Indonesian Schools Plan to Use Religious Education to Teach Character

Indonesia Envisions More Religion in Schools

NY Times Article

Ed Wray for the International Herald Tribune

Annisa Nurul Jannah, 11, left, says science lessons teach her ‘‘a lot.’’

By SARA SCHONHARDT

Published: January 6, 2013

JAKARTA — Annisa Nurul Jannah, 11, was learning about how devices transmit heat, sound and electricity. “I like science because it teaches me a lot,” the sixth grader at Petamburan 04, a school in a working-class part of Jakarta, said about her favorite subject. “I’d be sad if it was removed from school.”

Millions of children in Indonesian elementary schools may no longer have separate science classes starting in June, the beginning of their next school year, if the government approves a curriculum overhaul that would merge science and social studies with other classes so more time can be devoted to religious education.

A draft of the proposal was posted online in November and December for public comment. The government is analyzing the feedback and will meet with a team of experts shortly to develop new lesson plans.

Ibnu Hamid, an Education Ministry spokesman, said feedback showed that people generally agreed with the curriculum changes but were worried that there would not be enough time to train teachers and prepare new books. The comments have not been released to the public, however, and some critics question whether they truly reflect broader opinion.

Officials who back the changes say that more religious instruction is needed because a lack of moral development has led to an increase in violence and vandalism among youths, and that could fuel social unrest and corruption in the future.

“Right now many students don’t have character, tolerance for others, empathy for others,” Musliar Kasim, the deputy minister of education, said in an interview in November. He proposed the changes in September.

He is part of a team of officials, academics and advisers from the office of Vice President Boediono working to streamline the curriculum in 2013.

Mr. Hamid said that the aim was to create a “balance between attitude, skills and knowledge.”

The draft curriculum released to the public in November was light on details. It did not outline how science and social studies would be taught once their dedicated classes were eliminated, or describe how religion and civics would contribute to character building.

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country with a secular government that recognizes the rights of six different faiths, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Religion is taught to students according to their own faiths, meaning that Muslim students are instructed in Islam, while Christian students study Christianity in separate classes. Reflecting the country’s demographics, most religious instruction is Islamic.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs, which advises the Education Ministry, is proposing that religious education be increased to four hours a week from two. It will remain a compulsory subject, along with mathematics, arts and crafts, physical education, Indonesian language and civics.

Just days after the ministry went public with the draft, parents, civil society organizations and members of the teachers’ federation began an online petition calling the changes unfounded.

“Instead of improving the curriculum, these changes dismantle the existing curriculum and do not guarantee better education in Indonesia,” states the petition, which has received more than 780 signatures.

The proposal to eliminate dedicated science and social studies classes has led to an outcry among parents and educators who worry that it could lead to a dumbing down of the country and make it less competitive.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago with more than 240 million people, has one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. Its attempt to improve its manufacturing and service industries is tied to its efforts to produce more skilled workers. Officials in the trade and manpower ministries have urged more training in areas like computer science.

Critics say the proposed changes will take the country in the opposite direction.

“We’re going to have a lost generation,” said Srisetiowati Seiful, executive director of the Surya Institute, a private foundation that develops alternative math and science teaching materials. “It’s going to mean fewer researchers, less technology development. It’s Indonesia entering the Dark Ages.”

Teachers at Annisa’s school in Petamburan say science and social studies are practical classes that teach children to ask questions, identify problems and find solutions. They would be difficult to integrate into other instruction.

“Children learn to understand new things through science,” said Edi Kusyanto, principal of Petamburan 04. “It stimulates their spirit to learn, their curiosity.”

One criticism of the proposed changes is that they overlook more crucial reforms needed in the education system.

“Our government is being reactive,” said Itje Chodidjah, an education expert who has advised the government on previous curriculum changes. “They think the solution to violence is more religious education, when there are a lot of causes and one of them is problems in the schools themselves.”

In much of rural Indonesia, teachers often fail to turn up to school, local administrations do little to monitor the quality of instruction, and books are dated or inadequate. Education experts say that many teachers lack basic knowledge about the current curriculum and are ignorant of the fact that they are allowed to develop their own course plans. Even in cities like Jakarta, schools in poor neighborhoods like Annisa’s lack resources and well-trained teachers.

Teachers need to be better trained on how to implement the current curriculum and teach religion in a way that is not dogmatic, said Ms. Chodidjah. She added that officials had little understanding of the conditions in most schools and failed to recognize that low teaching quality had made Indonesia a global laggard. A report released in November by Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked national education systems, placed Indonesia at the bottom of its list of 40 countries.

But officials who back the proposal say that the government has a responsibility to prepare children to be better citizens, which means providing them with them moral and religious instruction.

Over the past year, analysts have noted a rise in religiously motivated violence, with recent clashes between hardline Islamists and minority religious groups including Christians, Shiites and the Muslim sect Ahmadiyah. A recent survey by the Setara Institute, a human rights group, recorded 371 acts of religious violence in 2012, marking a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

Some officials blame such incidents on a lack of character development in schools.

“You can see that we are getting more intolerant,” said Bambang Widianto, a member of the advisory team from the vice president’s office. “Students cannot accept that there are people that have different religions and come from different backgrounds. It’s scary, actually.”

Kamaruddin Amin, secretary of the directorate general of Islamic education at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said religious values could prevent misbehavior.

“Right now religion doesn’t contribute significantly to building character because the time allotted to religious education is very limited,” he said.

He brushed off concerns that more religious instruction would have a negative impact on the education system.

“Indonesians are religious people, they are very much attached to their religious teachings, their religious values,” he said. “That is why religion must be taught in school.”

Some lawmakers on the House of Representatives commission overseeing education and youth affairs agree that prayer and worship should be promoted in school.

But critics of the proposal do not think that a curriculum overhaul is the answer. Some teachers worry that government and religious leaders are oversimplifying the problem and are using terms like “character building” and “morality” to justify more religious education.

Indonesia has set aside 171 billion Indonesian rupiah, or almost $18 million, to draft a new curriculum, but many worry that the money will be wasted if attention is not put toward improving the education system as a whole.

“To change the curriculum, you have to train the teachers, you have to provide the books,” said Lestia Primayanti, who teaches first grade at Kembang Elementary School in Jakarta. “Indonesia is a very big country. Change is not as easy as flipping your hand.”

Yoga Class Draws a Religious Protest

From The New York Times

T. Lynne Pixley for The New York Times

Miriam Ruiz during a yoga class last week at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. A few dozen parents are protesting that the program amounts to religious indoctrination.

By WILL CARLESS

ENCINITAS, Calif. — By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing.  “Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes — part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego — represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” Ms. Eady said. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”

Ms. Eady and a few dozen other parents say a public school system should not be leading students down any particular religious path. Teaching children how to engage in spiritual exercises like meditation familiarizes young minds with certain religious viewpoints and practices, they say, and a public classroom is no place for that.

Underlying the controversy is the source of the program’s financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who is considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its Web site, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest. Mr. Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group’s broader evangelistic purpose.

“There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program,” he said.

“The analog would be if we substituted for this program a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program,” he said.

The battle over yoga in schools has been raging for years across the country but has typically focused on charter schools, which receive public financing but set their own curriculums.

The move by the Encinitas Union School District to mandate yoga classes for all students who do not opt out has elevated the discussion. And it has split an already divided community.

The district serves the liberal beach neighborhoods of Encinitas, including Leucadia, where Paul Ecke Central Elementary is, as well as more conservative inland communities. On the coast, bumper stickers reading “Keep Leucadia Funky” are borne proudly. Farther inland, cars are more likely to feature the Christian fish symbol, and large evangelical congregations play an important role in shaping local philosophy.

Opponents of the yoga classes have started an online petition to remove the course from the district’s curriculum. They have shown up at school board meetings to denounce the program, and Mr. Broyles has threatened to sue if the board does not address their concerns.

The district has stood firm. Tim Baird, the schools superintendent, has defended the yoga classes as merely another element of a broader program designed to promote children’s physical and mental well-being. The notion that yoga teachers have designs on converting tender young minds to Hinduism is incorrect, he said.

“That’s why we have an opt-out clause,” Mr. Baird said. “If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose, you’re invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else.”

Ms. Eady is not convinced.

“Yoga poses are representative of Hindu deities and Hindu stories about the actions and interactions of those deities with humans,” she said. “There’s content even in the movement, just as with baptism there’s content in the movement.”

Russell Case, a representative of the Jois Foundation, said the parents’ fears were misguided.

“They’re concerned that we’re putting our God before their God,” Mr. Case said. “They’re worried about competition. But we’re much closer to them than they think. We’re good Christians that just like to do yoga because it helps us to be better people.”

Nun Uses Music to Convey Spirited Message Against the Vatican’s Rebuke

  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times
  • Sister Kathy Sherman, with the Congregation of St. Joseph, writes popular and folk songs and sees music as part of her ministry.
By
Published: December 1, 2012, The New York Times

LA GRANGE PARK, Ill. — When Kathy Sherman was in college during the final years of the Vietnam War, she played the guitar with friends in her dorm room and sang folk and protest songs over bowls of popcorn. They sang Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and some friends said her voice reminded them of Judy Collins.

Ms. Sherman graduated and joined an order of Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, but she never stopped making music. Last spring, when the Vatican issued a harsh assessment of the group representing a majority of American nuns accusing them of “serious doctrinal problems,” Sister Sherman, 60, said she responded the way she always does when she feels something deeply. She wrote a song.

The words popped into her head two days after the Vatican’s condemnation, as she was walking down the hallway in her order’s ministry center, feeling hurt and angry: “Love cannot be silenced,” she thought. “It never has. It never will.” She went into the center’s dining room and tried out the lyrics on some of her sisters. They liked the message.

“Love Cannot be Silenced” became an anthem, not just for the nuns but also for laypeople who turned out for vigils in front of churches and cathedrals across the country this year to support them. In a voice sweet and resolute, Sister Sherman sang, “We are faithful, loving and wise, dancing along side by side, with a Gospel vision to lead us and Holy Fire in our eyes” — a lyric that evokes the nuns’ novel forging of spirit with steel.

“I see it more as a song of affirmation than a protest song,” Sister Sherman, her gray-green eyes sparkling, said in an interview in October at her religious community’s ministry center here outside Chicago. “I wasn’t protesting anything. I was saying, ‘This is our story.’ ”

Sister Sherman’s story reflects the journey of so many nuns of her generation. She grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, when Catholic women’s and men’s orders were booming and it was natural for a Catholic girl to consider a life as a nun. After college, she became a teacher at a girls’ school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, and was attracted to the order’s community life and its ideals of unity and inclusiveness. But by the time she entered the order in 1980, at age 28, the boom was over.

At the time, the sisters were in the midst of a major evolution. The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, had decreed that religious orders should re-examine the writings of their founders in order to reconsider their particular mission and character, or “charism.” The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph sent a delegation to France to study the documents written by their founders — six women and a Jesuit priest. They concluded that their charism was far more expansive than just teaching and nursing.

“There it was, right in print,” said Sister Pat Bergen, who joined the order in 1963 and now serves on the congregation’s leadership team, recalling the excitement. “We can do anything women are capable of doing, as long as what we do enables unity to happen. So the sisters became prison ministers and artists and began following their gifts.”

Sister Bergen and Sister Sherman spoke over breakfast in the community’s sunny dining room, where women were preparing to set off for work dressed in everything from sweatsuits to tailored blazers and skirts.

Sister Chris March headed upstairs to her massage and healing practice. Sister Janet Bolger boarded a bus called the “School on Wheels,” a mobile classroom run by her order, where she and others teach immigrant adults English one-on-one. Sister Mary Southard went to her studio upstairs to paint. Sister Marianne Race, wearing a denim shirt stitched with the St. Joseph logo, descended to the basement where she manages St. Joseph Press, which produces calendars, notecards and wall hangings sold through the congregation’s “Ministry of the Arts.”

The Congregation of St. Joseph, with 650 sisters, was formed when seven independent groups of Sisters of St. Joseph merged in 2007. One member is Sister Helen Prejean, whose work with convicts on death row was the subject of the film “Dead Man Walking.”

Sister Sherman’s ministry evolved too. She composes popular and folk songs — she has recorded 21 CDs — as well as music for liturgies. She also leads spiritual retreats across the country, coordinates her community’s environmental sustainability effort and is helping to produce a curriculum on nonviolence for schoolchildren in the Chicago Archdiocese.

She used to live in the ministry center, but she now lives with two other sisters and a novice in a house nearby where she can garden and cook. She rises at 5:40 a.m., prays in her room for about 45 minutes and then joins the others in the living room for communal prayers. Many days she goes to work in her studio on the sixth floor of the ministry center, a complex that also houses an “eco-spirituality library,” rooms for low-income women and a modern sanctuary with stained glass windows designed by Sister Southard.

“I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness. The contemplative life nurtures my ministry, and my ministry nurtures my contemplative life.”

Her studio is a refuge, a long room dominated by a black Young Chang piano (a Steinway was out of reach). There is a prayer plant, a picture of her mother, who taught piano, and a plaque that says “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Her long fingers on the keys, she played pieces she wrote at pivotal moments: the start of the Iraq war; the murder of a nun, by an ex-convict, in a Buffalo halfway house she ran; the height of the political vitriol in the last presidential election, in a song she titled “This Is the America I Believe In.”

“A lot of the music I write is not religious, per se,” she said. “It’s got religious values, it’s got spiritual values. The songs may not name God, but they may name the hope, the peace, the love. For me, they are all names for God.”

That evening she met in the sanctuary with a women’s singing group she started recently out of the belief that people do not sing together enough anymore. There were four nuns and 11 laywomen, including one who had asked Sister Sherman over during a storm, around midnight, to sing to her dying mother.

Bouncing on her toes, Sister Sherman conducted as if the women were an orchestra. “Good! Pretty!” she shouted as they navigated unfamiliar lines in Xhosa in a South African piece. “Keep the rhythm going.” They ended with “Love Cannot Be Silenced.”

“It’s an anthem,” Sister Sherman told them. “Go ahead, stand up! Rise up!”


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Sister Sherman’s studio is in the congregation’s ministry center in La Grange Park, outside Chicago.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Her song “Love Cannot Be Silenced” became an anthem after the Vatican’s rebuke of the group representing the majority of American nuns.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Sister Sherman has recorded 21 CDs and recently started a women’s singing group, concerned that people do not sing together enough anymore.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Other sisters in the congregation paint, work in prisons and teach English to adult immigrants.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times
    “I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness.”

Amid the Ashes, a Statue of Mary Stands as a Symbol of Survival

Amid the Ashes, a Statue of Mary Stands as a Symbol of Survival

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The Breezy Point Madonna, still standing after 100 homes burned to the ground, has become a place of faith.

Where the McNulty home once stood on the corner of Oceanside and Gotham, a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean on the spit of land in Queens called Breezy Point, there now remains a charred, twisted ruin. Flooding and fire have left behind nothing but the foundation. Within it are strewed a dislodged bathtub, an air-conditioner casing battered into a helix shape, a mailbox coated with ashes.

As if all that loss were not loss enough, the storm spared a few tormenting reminders of life before its arrival. In the scorched shell of a cedar closet, screen windows stand neatly stacked. Three rolls of paper towels sit on a pantry shelf, toasted as delicately brown as cookout marshmallows.

So, yes, at the corner of Oceanside Avenue and Gotham Walk, the house inherited by the elderly McNultys’ niece Regina after the couple died, is a place of tragedy. It is also, astonishingly, a place of faith. For the one part of the home to survive intact was a statue of the Virgin Mary that Mary McNulty placed in her garden years ago.

The statue is one of the only recognizable remnants of the swath of Breezy Point where more than 100 homes burned to the ground while a flood kept firefighters from reaching it. Since the waters withdrew early on Oct. 30, the image of the Breezy Point Madonna has reached the nation, indeed the world, through vivid news photos. Pilgrims have come to leave offerings: a bouquet of yellow roses, four quarters, a votive candle, a memorial card for the victims of Sept. 11, a written admonition that healing begins with acceptance.

Ellen Mathis Kail knelt at the shrine five days after the catastrophe. She had spent 30 summers on Breezy Point and watched her parents save for decades to buy a bungalow on Gotham Walk. She had been married in the parish church, St. Thomas More, a few blocks away.

Living in Denver, teaching fourth grade at Saint Vincent de Paul, a Roman Catholic school, Ms. Kail had followed the grim news of the storm’s approach. On Oct. 29, when she saw a message on Facebook that said “Breezy Point burning,” she sent a text message to her childhood friend, Meg Dolan.

“Please, Meg,” she wrote, “before I tell my parents, is there any chance this could be a very bad rumor?”

Ms. Dolan sent a text back, “It’s all devastation.”

The next morning, the teachers and students at Saint Vincent de Paul began writing cards. Ms. Kail flew to New York with a bag full of them on Nov. 2. Initially, she said, she had thought of having Ms. Dolan or one of the parish priests give them to displaced families. But then, walking through the wreckage along Gotham, she noticed the statue and laid the cards at Mary’s feet.

“I am a kid from Denver,” one boy wrote, “and my teacher is Ellen. I love her accent, it’s funny. But I’m so sorry for your homes. But God will make something good out of it and God will protect you Big and Small. You Rock!”

Ms. Kail noticed a pot of violets outside another destroyed house. Somehow the flowers were still alive. She moved the pot beside the Madonna.

“It was so bleak, so horrific,” Ms. Kail, 44, said. “And I thought maybe if I left some color, some hope, it would brighten someone’s day, just to think someone is praying for them.”

One of the first photographers on the scene, Frank Franklin II of The Associated Press, reached the corner of Oceanside and Gotham at 6 a.m. on Oct. 30.

Winding through the fields of blackened debris, he found himself transfixed by the statue of the Virgin Mary. Though raised by Protestant parents, Mr. Franklin attended a Catholic high school and he immediately perceived a deeper meaning.

“It’s weird how I was drawn to it,” Mr. Franklin, 40, recalled. “I’m not the most religious person in the world, but I know what those images are. When I made that frame, I knew it would resonate with people. What I couldn’t imagine was how much.”

Through his Twitter account, Mr. Franklin has heard from people who saw his photo in print or online. “A wonderful image,” one wrote on Twitter. Another wrote, “A symbol of faith.” By the afternoon of Nov. 16, a Google search for “Breezy Point Madonna” retrieved more than 400,000 results.

What happened spontaneously speaks to a larger theme in Catholicism. According to Timothy Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, the veneration of Mary, or Marian devotion, tends to fall into three categories. One involves apparitions; the second concerns statues associated with miracles in response to prayer; the third, as at Breezy Point, centers on an image of Mary that survives in some extraordinary way.

“In the midst of terrible tragedy, here’s a holy image, a sacred image, that made it through,” Dr. Matovina said. “There’s a sense you’ve been crushed, but not abandoned.”

Last week, Msgr. Michael J. Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More, stood before the statue. A retired firefighter standing nearby surveying the remains of his home, greeted the monsignor, then nearly broke into tears.

“It will be a symbol of the suffering,” Monsignor Curran said of the statue, “but also of our rise from the ashes. It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through but also of our resurrection. It will be a reminder that for all the property we lost, God never left.”