Democratic Education in Multi-Ethnic Societies

I know of no safe repository for the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.                                                                                                                         THOMAS JEFFERSON

Jefferson’s “safe repository” for power (kratos) of the people (demos) is democracy itself (Stevick & Levinson, 2007). The term coins from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) which means “rule of the people” and was a combination of two words, from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (krátos) “power” or “rule”. The Athenian first conceived it in the 5th century BC and referred it to the political system existing in Greek city-states. This piece of writing will convey the idea of how education system has been used to encourage the formation of democratic citizen and its challenges in multi-ethnic society. Hopefully by revealing the struggles of some multi-ethnic countries in general and Indonesia in particular, we are able to address and execute better strategies of democratic education in multi-cultural society.

In school where formal education is given, all students will be exposed to complex world other than their own family and neighborhood. It is also a place, where students’ minds will be shifted overtime through teaching and learning process. Thus, school is viewed as the strategic place to implant ideologies. Sigel (1991) argues that democratic citizens are not born; they are made. It is not a natural experience of human to live in democratic way. According to Aristotle, man is a social animal and the individual depends upon the state if he or she is to flourish. Democratic value needs to be taught and it is no surprise that newly democratizing states most often turn to school to advance the project of democratic citizenship (Stevick & Levinson, 2007).

In the core of nation being, every country needs to develop the nationalism identity for each of its citizen. The task has become increasingly urgent over the past few decades after the World-War II period when composition of citizen were changed in several countries due to the massive population of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America (Sigel, 1991). Another change also appeared in the developing countries when these new countries proclaimed their independence after being colonized for a very long period of time. The need of nationhood identity is very crucial in order to maintain its sovereignty as a one independent country.

As the world became increasingly integrated, interconnected, and complicated, the model of citizenship for many societies is changing in different ways of political and socio-cultural approaches. Therefore, the challenges are different in every country based on its local characteristic society and political situation. For instance, in certain post-industrial nations who have receiving the massive numbers of immigrants, are characterized as multi-ethnic ones. The host of these nations, however, in fact oftentimes put the newcomers in the underprivileged position even act violence against them. This new dynamic situation within the country has undoubtedly raised the need of democratic values in daily life. Both host and newcomers need to understand and practice how to live in democratic manner in a multi-ethnic society without presentiment or malice. Below, I will mention some countries that have multi-ethnic society and their struggle in the implementation of democratic education.

Firstly, Harber (Sigel & Hoskin, 1991) studies the issues of political education for democracy in Britain context. He argues that Britain is not fully democratic country; it is found that there are racist practices in social and political institution among white power holders toward people of color from ASIAN or Afro-Caribbean origins. Thus, democratic education that is targeting the young white people, as the dominant group, has purpose to help them learn to value equal right for all citizens.

Secondly is Israel; after its establishment as a country in 1948, its founders aimed to create a democratic state. Several social institutions were called upon to promote democracy in the newly-born society, including education system. According to Rubinstein and Adler (in Sigel & Hoskin, 1991), Israel has posed particular problems and challenges in developing education system to prepare its youth for democratic citizenship through the “Rules of the Game” program. However, because of the composition of Israli society are mostly from several groups who have their origin in non-democratic societies, it is not always clear which political norms and “rules of the game” control the dominant population.

The next example is Netherlands. Hooghoff (Sigel & Hoskin, 1991) explains that after the Second World War, the Netherlands was confronted with a large scale and heterogeneous arrival of immigrants from its former colonies overseas such as Indonesia, Moluccans, Surinamese and Antileans. In addition to that, Netherlands also faced to immigration with economics reasons by dominantly workers from Mediterranean with their families, a few political refugees and granted political asylum. The government tries to apply the Intercultural education as a principle, and social and political education as a compulsory subject. It will provide education to minority group according to their own language and culture and followed by the intercultural education that serves as glimpse of understanding of others culture. The dual aims are for newcomers to retain their own identity, while conforming to the rules of society.

Lastly, Brown (2007), in his article “Making ethnic citizens: The politics and practice of education in Malaysia, mention that Civic Education in Malaysia has two seemingly contradictory purposes: to build National building and to promote ethnic Malay interest as an eradication of interethnic economic disparities between Chinese and Malay ethnic population. Malayan as the majority in population and attributed as son of the land or bumiputera were having low economic status compared to the Chinese people. According to Brown, Malaysian regime has sought to resolve the tensions between nation-building and ethnicity through a didactic and pedagogical approach to educational development, which promotes a concept of nationhood that, rather than transcending ethnic allegiances, and encourage citizen to participate as a nation entities with virtual worship and totally submission to the political leaders.

The prior illustrations have addressed some concerns such as how is the dynamic relation among the majority and minority groups; how educational institution plays a significant role in to form the democratic citizens including studies of curriculum, teaching strategies, and school environments; how governmental programs have struggled to increase school efforts to bring minorities into the dominant discourse as a one nation, and to foster understanding of the minority experience across a variety of democratic societies.

Democratic and Multicultural Education in Indonesia

Like any other multi-ethnic society, the biggest challenge in the accomplishment of democratic education in Indonesia is dealing with its diverse population. This country has a saying Bhineka Tunggal Ika which means Unity in Diversity. According to Banks (2004) Unity without diversity results in hegemony and oppression, diversity without unity leads to Balkanization and the fracturing of the nation-state. Therefore, national unity is a primary agenda of Indonesian nation-building for the population comprises more than three hundred culturally, geographically, and linguistically diverse ethnic groups (Hoon, 2013). Moreover, since 1950 right after proclaimed its Independent as a nation, Indonesia has been integrating civic education on its national curriculum that applied from kindergarten into higher education level. This civic education aim was to raise and sustain awareness and consciousness that Indonesian citizens have a responsibility to themselves, to society and to the nation.

After the Independence Day, in 1945, its early government started to reconstruct curriculum based on recent situation. In 1947, after three years of Independence, a simper basic curriculum had been released called Leer plan or “Lesson Plan”. The term at that time is more popular then term curriculum (in English). This is a political transformation form Dutch oriented to Nationhood identity. Nonetheless, at the time Indonesian curriculum still had strong influences from Netherland and Japan, so all the school subjects remained the same. Thus, because of the spirit of Independence still powerfully embodied in society, education is designed as a tool of conformism development that emphasizes more into national sovereignty development and less on personal cognitive aspect. So civic education is more important than science or math. The official state philosophy of Pancasila first entered the civic education curriculum after a presidential decree in 1959, and the official teachers’ civic book, The new Indonesian Person and Societ (Civics), covered the topics of Pancasila, the history of Indonesian struggle, rights and responsibility of citizens, and the state speeches of President Soekarno.

Furthermore, in order to get a sense of its real implementation within classroom, hereby two different examples of Civic Education’s enactment in high school classrooms in Indonesia. The first example is a Public High School in Padang, West Sumatra. This school is located in the predominantly moderate Muslim area and majority of its teachers and students are Muslim. Gaylor (in Stevick & Levinson, 2007) reports that there are many attempts of teaching in civic education class by teacher. Ibu Satu tried to make the required topics engaging in a variety of ways, while following the set of order curriculum. She was also trying to build the democratic classroom where all students had balance chances to speak up their minds. In contrast, push backs are came from several stakeholder such as principal, who warned her to be not too radical and parents who complained their children cannot answer the memorizing questions on examination. In different setting, Hoon (2013), whose research was conducted in a double minority —Chinese and Christian— school, found that in homogenous environment, teaching multiculturalism is not an easy job. Although the school management espouses the importance of multiculturalism, there is no specialized curriculum that addresses education for multiculturalism and tolerance. In this school, the downcast and queasiness are common students’ responses by realizing there are a huge gap between textbook and reality. To get clear sense about students’ response toward civic education in Indonesia, Hoon (2013) states some of his participants’ answers:

“State principles only appear in the book and never in practice” p.71

“Political practices in Indonesia are very different from the theories taught”p.71-72

“PKn is boring. The teacher is boring and the material is boring. The material taught in PKn focuses on laws and regulation. We know that in Indonesia most law and regulations are only formulated but are not implemented.” p 72

“PKn keeps repeating itself — laws, political practices, and so on. It is more importana to change the mentality, not keep emphasizing knowledge of state ideology. Our nation failed because our mentality is wrong, doesn’t matter how much we know about the ideology.” p72

“One student asked their teacher why they needed to learn about political participation if they knew that, ‘at the end of the day, politics is about lies and corruption’ p.72

The content of civic education merely consist by facts, constitutions, and ideal values of living within the society and political participation. All these heavy load materials are tested in the examination and become the indicator of students’ achievement. In fact, an Indonesian academic H.A.R Tilaar argues that multicultural education can only be implemented when teachers are themselves living in a multicultural manner. Multiculturalism as well as democracy cannot be learnt through rote classroom practice alone. Democratic citizenship requires real experience in democratic practices. Although performing this ideal teaching and learning atmosphere can be difficult within the practice of traditional-authoritarian instruction, a heavy load curriculum, and standardize test.

In real life, people are exposed to the real multicultural society. In my personal experience, I am living and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds since I was a kid until now. Some of my close friends are Muslim and Chinese people. I lived in a very multiethnic society and connected with other people with different roles and responsibility. At present in my adulthood life as a graduate student in the U.S, I got a chance to meet up more diverse society with varieties of races, nations, sexual orientation, religions and cultures. I can embrace the differentiation among them and relate to people from different countries quite well. This fact somehow, heartens me that I was growing up in a very democratic and multiethnic society and those experiences were formed me to be a person as who I am right now. Regardless the struggle of civic education in formal school, I found that Indonesian people have natural experiences of living in harmony and tolerance diversity. In addition to that, the weekly flag ceremony in purpose to raise nationhood by reflecting the struggles of our heroes, enunciating of PANCASILA as our national ideology and preamble of 1945 constitution, singing national anthem seemed strongly embossed in my mind.

However, the global challenges are more complex now days. Thus, the serious and systematic improvement in civic education curriculum is an urgent necessity. The advancing of democratic citizen in multicultural society need to be priority, but then further question arises what kind of Democratic and Multicultural Education? Castagno (2009) synthesizes six approaches and definitions of multicultural education offered in the literature:

  1. Education for Assimilation: Diversity is perceived as a threat and something to be ignored or downplayed. Power and neutrality are located in the dominant mainstream culture. Students are educated to assume their role in the current social order.
  2. Education for Amalgamation: Neutrality towards diversity. Commonalities across people and groups are emphasized in order to reduce prejudice and promote unity.
  3. Educating for pluralism: cultural relativist position. Cultural differences are celebrated and respected.
  4. Educating for cross-cultural competence: competence and acculturation in different and multiple cultural setting is encouraged.
  5. Educating for critical awareness: Facilitate increased awareness of and questioning of the status quo, relations of power, and social struggle.
  6. Education for Social Action: In addition to being aware of the status quo and inequity, students must work to change structural inequalities and promote social change.

Each of these approaches relies on different assumption about the purpose of education in a multicultural and democratic society. They also can be reflected in set of very different curricula, pedagogy, and educational policies. In Indonesia, I can say that the purposes of its education are closely related to education for Amalgamation and Pluralism. It is reflected on the symbolism of Bhineka Tunggal Ika, Pancasila, and other ideologies that have one vein of Unity in Diversity. Promoting diversity under the umbrella of one nation. However, in my opinion Indonesia has to advance into the last type of goal that is Education for Social Action. In research findings and also in line with my own experience, civic education is the most boring subject because student is only taught the ideal things of a nation being. Let us stop the lullaby and convey the reality and then stimulate the students to being aware of the status quo and inequity, put the responsibility as an active agent to change structural inequalities and promote social change. All educators make decision about the purpose they are working and the type of society they hope to inspire.


Apple, M. W. (1993). The Politics of Official Knowledge: Does a National Curriculum Make Sense? Teachers College Record, 95(2), 222-241.

Banks, J. A. (2008). Diversity, group identity, and citizenship education in a global age. Educational Researcher, 37(3), 129-139.

Brown, G. K. (2007). Making ethnic citizens: The politics and practice of education in Malaysia. International Journal of Educational Development, 27, 318-330.

Castagno, E.A. (2009). Making sense of Multicultural Education: a synthesis of the various typologies found in literature. Multicultural Perspective, 11(1), 43-48

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Ho, L. C. (2010). “Don’t worry, I’m not going to report you”: Education for citizenship in Singapore. Theory and Research in Social Education, 38(2), 217-247.

Hoon, C.-Y. (2013). Multicultural citizenship education in Indonesia: The case of a Chinese Christian school. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 44, 490-510.

Kymlicka, W. (2003). Multicultural states and intercultural citizens. Theory and Research in Education, 1(2), 147-169.

Levinson, B., & Stevick, D. (Eds.). (2007). Reimagining Civic Education: How Diverse Societies Form Democratic Citizens. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Levstik, L. S., & Groth, J. (2005). “Ruled by our own people”: Ghanaian adolescents’ conceptions of citizenship. Teachers College Record, 107(4), 563-586.

Parker, W. (Ed.). (2002). Education for Democracy: Contexts, Curricula, Assessments. Greenwich, Conn: Information Age Publishing.

Sigel, R. S., & Hoskin, M. B. (Eds.). (2013). Education for Democratic Citizenship: A Challenge for Multi-ethnic Societies (1 edition). Routledge.


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