Powerful writers versus the helpless readers
Once I raised the following question to 40 math and 60 language students in a graduate school in Bandung: If you do not understand the text you are reading, what is the reason?
You may replicate this informal survey, and very likely you will find similar findings. Almost 95 percent of my students blamed themselves. They said that they did not have the right background reading, the writer’s expertise was very high, the reading was beyond their capacity as a new learner, the rhetoric was too complicated, or they could not concentrate when reading.
Those responses indicated many things, with the bottom line being the fatalistic attitude toward a text created by a powerful writer. Readers are helpless beings spoon-fed by mighty writers. To repeat, they are passive readers.
I would hypothesize that our language education has failed to develop critical readers. Most Indonesian university graduates have learned a local language, Bahasa Indonesia, and a foreign language, especially English in the K-12 plus four-year college.
Critical readers develop an awareness of form, content and context. Form refers to the linguistic symbols employed by the writer, content refers to the meaning or substance being discussed and context refers to the social and psychological environment when the writing is produced.
When a reader says, “I do not have similar background knowledge,” he/she is actually self-contradicting. Readers, especially graduate students, voluntarily read what they think is interesting or relevant to their backgrounds. Clearly, self-contradicting indicates a lack of confidence.
When readers say, “The writer’s expertise is very high” or “It’s just beyond my capacity as a new learner,” they are distancing themselves from the writer by relegating themselves into hopelessness. Such positioning suggests superiority of the writer over the reader.
When readers say, “I have not reached that level” or “His rhetoric is too high for me,” they are evaluating themselves as if they have no entry knowledge or capacity to interact with the writer.
Similarly, when students respond, “I could not concentrate when reading,” they are blaming themselves as if all reading problems were a result of their lack of concentration.
All the sample responses to the aforementioned survey are indicative of the literacy profile of university graduates and reflect how language education is taking place in this country. This could be explained as follows.
First, the reading-writing connection approach believes that the extent of your reading determines the power of your writing. Knowledge accumulates through reading, while writing is putting the knowledge into paper. Students should be trained to share their experiences immediately through writing.
The common practice at schools is to postpone writing long after reading. Consequently, writing skill is less developed than reading skill. Such postponement has developed the attitude that writing is superior to reading, and the writer by implication is superior to the reader.
Second, our language education has produced reading-oriented rather than writing-oriented students. Such students tend to develop a fatalistic attitude toward the text. The text is perceived superior to its helpless readers.
Students should be taught to develop critical language awareness, namely sensitivity of power and ideology underlying language use.
By way of comparison, in the past religious texts were believed to be sacred. Only great religious scholars were allowed to interpret them, while lay people were not allowed to do so. Such a practice has developed uncritical readers, who will unlikely become critical writers.
Critical readers believe that both writers and readers are equally responsible for meaning making. To the question: “When you do not understand the text you are reading, what is the reason?” a critical reader could answer that the writer is not competent enough to convey the ideas and to entertain the reader.
Expert writers abide by Grice’s maxims of quantity, quality, relation and manner. They will not give more information than is required. The information is valid and relevant with the intended audience. Besides, rhetorically the information is well conveyed.
Muslim intellectuals are reminded of the Koranic verse, saying that they should make use of qaulan baliga (An-Nisa: 63), namely to speak to the audience an effective word to reach their inner selves. For Muslim intellectuals, then, to speak and write communicatively is in line with religious teachings.
Third, reading-oriented students will hardly become writing-oriented intellectuals, regardless of their expertise. When they have to write, they tend to take those maxims easy. They lack sensitivity of the psychology of their intended readers.
Exclusive intellectuals are simply ivory towers when their expertise is not understood by others. To be beneficial for the public, the expertise should be texted observing the criteria of qaulan baliga that is audience-oriented. Neglecting the criteria, the intellectuals are branded as arrogant and asocial.
Newly returned PhD holders from overseas often use their favorite textbooks that are too advanced for undergraduate students, thus treating it as if they were doctoral candidates already. The students are then overwhelmed with the materials beyond their zone of cognitive proximity and comfort.
This is not didactic, but an intellectual harassment. No wonder, my respondents responded pessimistically. Out of arrogance or selfishness, a lecturer does not realize that his/her decision discourages students from being critical readers.
The phenomenon of incorrect use of good textbooks for undergraduate students is sheer evidence that our intellectuals are more reading-oriented rather than writing-oriented. Obtaining a PhD overseas will not change the orientation at all. It is the K-12 education at home that should develop writing-oriented behavior.
Obviously overseas-trained intellectuals are not necessarily more productive in textbook writing. Instead of writing textbooks in Indonesian themselves, they often retort to recommending imported textbooks, which are designed for non-Indonesians. To repeat, Grice’s maxims are violated.
There is another danger of using imported textbooks. Our college students, who are currently more than 2.6 million in number, are brainwashed that our national language is not sophisticated enough to be a language of science and technology. Many intellectuals do not realize that this huge number is actually a captive market for self-produced textbooks.
Lacking the ability to write themselves, they recommend imported textbooks instead. Unconsciously they are showing a silent resistance toward the Youth Pledge, which recognizes Bahasa Indonesia as our national language.
It is time for our intellectuals to take pride in our national language by writing textbooks in Indonesian. K-12 education should promote productive reading-writing connections to develop young writers who will become adult writers and later, on completion of their advanced studies, intellectual writers.
The writer is a professor at Bandung Education University (UPI) and author of Pokoknya Menulis
(Just writing), 2006.