Shoddy scholars



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A good friend of mine from Nepal, Tibetson Lhakpa, paid me a visit recently in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He was about to join a regional seminar on book publishing and writing habits.

During our conversation, he was fascinated by Yogyakarta’s mushrooming publishing houses, not simply because of their sheer number — which is nearing 100 — but also the extraordinary writing habit of people here. 

His assessment made sense since he was in Yogyakarta, known as the country’s student city. But on the whole, Indonesian lecturers and intellectuals are often criticised for their poor writing skills. Another friend and former coordinator of the private universities in Jakarta claimed that over 50 percent of the teaching staff of various universities in the capital have yet to write or publish a textbook or article in Bahasa (Indonesian language), let alone in English. 

Perhaps, the situation is getting worse. Despite the increasing number of faculty at various universities, authorship of the teaching staff has not changed significantly. Many research reports have shown that most faculty members allocate most of their time to routine work that doesn’t contribute to intellectual creativity. Reading, teaching and guiding students does not necessarily result in intellectual productivity. Instead, they seem to be more concerned with development of their personal status and enhancing their social life. 

Take a look at a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation and note the bibliography. It is certain that most of the major references are written by foreigners in English. You can easily come to the conclusion that a lot of professors, even from major universities in Indonesia, do not write.

Get into an Indonesian professor’s house and look around. You may be fascinated by his research collection. However, don’t you dare ask him to show you a textbook or publication of his own! It’s too bad Indonesia’s professors and intellectuals are simply customers of foreign academic writing.

Many factors are behind this trend. In Indonesia, writing textbooks is not a profit-making business. Publishers and bookstores earn a lot of money, while authors rarely break even. It is not surprising that many potential authors are reluctant to write and tend to pin the blame on publishers for taking an unfair percentage of the book sales. On the contrary, publishers tend to blame the poor reading culture of the society which, in turn, bodes ill for the marketing of books.  

Many believe this culture reflects years of a failed national education system. Others say intellectuals do not know how to write because their teachers failed to provide them with necessary writing skills. Both arguments are used to criticise Indonesian intellectuals in general and lecturers in particular. 

Intellectuals and university faculty members who do not write extensively on their subjects are incompetent scholars. (In the US, it is hard to get university tenure without extensive publication in relevant journals.) As native Indonesians, intellectuals and university faculty are certainly able to speak and read Indonesian. But as intellectuals, they should also use their competence, knowledge and skills to carry out their public role. However, there is no guarantee that native Indonesian speakers with numerous academic degrees are able to get their articles and books published.

Indonesian intellectuals excel in receptive skills — the ability to hear and read. But only a few develop productive skills — the ability to speak and write. Again, the education system must be held accountable for failing to equip students with adequate writing and communication skills. Universities are barely doing anything about this problem. Most university graduates are poor in creative writing and in their grasp of the English language. Therefore, it is time to re-examine the practice of writing lessons in schools and colleges. Good writing skills cannot be established overnight. It takes a long time to develop a course that prepares good writers who may one day become intellectuals. 

Reflecting upon my student-teaching experience, better writing skills can be developed through more writing exercises at school or in college, a sense of humour and reading books and newspapers. The availability of reading materials such as textbooks, newspapers and magazines is inherently linked to improved reading habits and writing skills. The two serve to create a crop of critical and creative thinkers, which are central to the development of future intellectuals in Indonesia as well as Nepal.