Post by Greg
This experience in Indonesia comes at a moment when questions about the utility of my liberal arts education are front of mind. No, I’m not talking about “marketability.” In our society, those who reap the highest monetary reward are those who short sell basic commodities like wheat and rice (exacerbating the world food crisis), those who jack up the price of life-saving drugs because of their “inflexible” demand, those who sell bundled, sure-to-fail mortgages. Indeed, it would be a mistake to measure my worth or the worth of my degree based on “marketability” in this market.
When I say utility, I mean the extent to which what I’ve learned in the ivory tower is powerful, resonant and relevant in the post-graduation world where I hope to make a positive difference. In this sense, the fascinating conversations and discussions I’ve witnessed and joined this summer working with Pergerakan Mahasiswa Islam Indonesia (The Indonesian Muslim Student Movement) actually leave me optimistic that my engagements with religion and anthropology at UNC were worthwhile, that my studies provide a lens that is cross-culturally relevant and helpful.
Arturo Escobar’s and Michal Osterweil’s lessons on the development regime rang true in my experiences with the village of Kepuhan, on the outskirts of Jogja, where PMII is currently doing long-term community work. Kepuhan is beautiful—deep greens abound, water is abundant, and (by admission of the community itself) destitute poverty is extremely minimal. This is not to idealize Kepuhan as perfect or unspoiled. Community members feel strongly that educational opportunities are too few. And as we learned, the lush natural environment surrounding Kepuhan is not “untouched” but rather the result of a concerted effort to restore clear-cut forests.
But Kepuhan is a nice place. It would be a good place to grow up. Formal, institutional knowledge is perhaps in short supply there, but the community is rich in first-hand knowledge of ecosystems, agriculture, and Javanese culture. This is indeed something that members of PMII and villagers in Kepuhan recognize. Other forces are at work in Kepuhan, though, forces traceable back to the development regime outlined in my courses at UNC.
In Kepuhan, knowledge of the land and education in traditional Javanese arts somehow aren’t included in “Sumber Daya Manusia” (“human resources” or “human capital”). Over and over, we heard from community members that “Sumber Daya Alam” (“natural resources”) were plentiful in Kepuhan but Sumber Daya Manusia were deficient. Furthermore, community leaders frequently described Kepuhan as tertinggal (left behind) and emphasized the need for kemajuan (progress/advancement). It seemed though that this “progress” was never really defined. Progress toward what? I found myself wondering. I finally asked one of the community leaders: “Kemajuan ini seperti apa? Kalau membayangkan Kepuhan yang sudah maju, itu seperti apa?” (What exactly is this progress? If you imagine a Kepuhan that is advanced, what is it like?) He responded that the main street running through the town would be busy, crowded with vendors, tourists, and food stalls. But for the members of PMII, who all attend university in the city center of Jogja, the lack of this hustle is exactly why they love working in rural communities.
In some ways, this is an old story: the “educated” members of a rapidly industrializing society are nostalgic for the simple ways of the village, while the villagers eagerly seek to become modern. Despite its tendency toward trope, I do believe the situation in Kepuhan should invite reflection. In a community that could sustain itself based on a local food economy, where tradition and culture are thriving and safety isn’t even a concern, the inexorable pull toward “progress”—toward urbanization, formalization of education, and more consumptive lifestyles—still holds sway.
The battle, of course, is over interpretation of this phenomenon—why do the villagers in Kepuhan want to lose precisely that which the members of PMII (and I) long for? Advocates of our current global economy would argue that the desire for “progress” is universal. My classes at UNC entrusted me with a different belief—that the linear pull toward “development” is based in the confusion of comfort with happiness, that we’ve taught ourselves to think of some places as “advanced” and other places as tertinggal. What I’ve yet to discover is how to act on this belief.