Ki Hadjar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa: Introduction

by indonotes

Suwardi Suryaningrat (1889-1959) took the name Ki Hajar Dewantara in 1928. An aristocrat from the Yogyakarta royal house of Paku Alam, he studied at the STOVIA (medical school). He was involved in the early activities of Budi Utomo and the Indies Party, which were both important in the early development of the pergerakan, the ‘movement’ that grew up with a nascent Indonesian national political consciousness. He was exiled between 1913 and 1919 following the publication of two of his articles: Als ik eens Nederlander was (If I was a Dutchman) and Eén voor allen en allen voor één (One for all and all for one). Following his return to the Indies he focused more on cultural and educational efforts. He played a leading role in the founding of the Taman Siswa educational movement in 1922. In 1945 he served as the first minister of National Education.

There are many fascinating tensions running through the life of Ki Hadjar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa. One of these relates to different strands in Indonesian political thought. On the one hand the influence of his thinking has been seen in Sukarno’s authoritarian ‘Guided Democracy’ and even Suharto’s military-ruled New Order. On the other, elements of the Taman Siswa had, at a various times and with varying intensity, connections to the Indonesian Communist Party.

How to reconcile these tendancies? Part of this relates to the peculiar nature of Indonesian politics under Sukarno, and part to the varied social makeup of the Taman Siswa movement. However, it also has to do with the ambivalent elements in Ki Hadjar Dewantara’s thought. This is drawn out in Kenji Tsuchiya’s account of the Taman Siswa movement, which highlights alternating tendancies towards ‘democracy and leadership’.

Other tensions might be found between the national and the local, the western and the eastern, and the traditional and the modern; yet a close examination of the life and works of Ki Hajar Dewantara can also be used to undermine such dichotomies.

Yet a further level of ambivalence is at the individual level. How does a person reconcile the their life force (jiwa), character (watak), with the social world around them. How is a person to become both free or independent (merdeka) and ‘disciplined’?

A significant amount has now been written about Ki Hadjar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa, and in the next post I will highlight some of the most interesting pieces. However, very little of Ki Hadjar Dewantara’s works have been translated into English: in following weeks I aim to provide some translations that will hopefully shed some light on the issues raised in this post.

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