Societies are obsessed with growth. Everybody wants a better quality of life, better education for their children: climb higher on the social ladder. Human's basic desire to progress is seen as the cornerstone that advances civilization and, therefore, it must be a good thing. And yet, the reality is it often becomes a problem when the desire to progress is focused solely on the economic front.
We are now entering an era where economic and technological growth outpace social growth. Jakarta is the most economically advanced city in the country, but social growth is often found wanting here. Passengers of luxury cars litter shamelessly. Orderly queue is hard to maintain as individuals stumble around public spaces preoccupied with their smartphones — that ironically never make them smarter. Incomes rise, but not necessarily the taxes paid for public services. More people can afford airfares to travel to all corners of the world, but seem reluctant to grow any new perspective. Children go to expensive schools, but come out as shallow, self-indulgent characters. Teenagers get more attention, but act more and more like spoiled brats. We tell students not to cheat, but they witness corrupt practices everywhere, everyday. What kind of a society are we trying to build here?
In Evangelii Gaudium, a 2013 apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis warned of the deterioration of ethics in society: "In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances. In many countries globalization has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated."
To bring it closer to home, our culture of “gotong-royong” epitomizes care for others — a universal value found in every religion. We remember from our civic classes that “gotong-royong” was often demonstrated by working together to clean a whole village or to build a bridge. There is, however, a deeper philosophical truth underlying the principle. Caring for others must start with mutual respect and understanding of the common issues — two values that will drive actions to solve them. How much of this character is still rooted in us?
We must re-inject character, courtesy and compassion into our society, especially to the younger generation, our future leaders. Knowledge of the natural and social sciences is important too, but it pales in comparison to knowing how that knowledge is to be developed and applied. Engineering students learn to fix and invent complex engines but can't find a way to use them to solve resource scarcity. Economic students are too busy looking at numbers in the stock exchange, hardly moved by the rampant poverty around them. Law students study hard to find loopholes in the legal system rather than to pursue justice for the oppressed.
Family is still key. As much as children spend time outside, home is the child's anchor and nest. Parents can’t be replaced by teachers or babysitters, likewise parenting cannot be delegated to schools or sport clubs. A school may reprimand a student who cheats, but good parenting is key to prevent cheating in the first place. A teacher can teach a student the most advanced science, but only a parent can inspire the child. Any effort to make teenagers stand on their own feet is meaningless if they are overly pampered at home. Needless to say, we must also be cautious not to play the blame game when it comes to laying out the responsibilities and authorities of schools and families. What we have to do is strengthen the partnership between schools and families for the sake of our children.
With the unfortunate deterioration of traditional family and its values, we must look at different ways to provide young people with "families" they can rely on. As the saying goes: blood makes you related, loyalty makes you family. Without a family, or a "family-like community," young adults will lack the solid foundation they need for character development. A sense of sisterhood, brotherhood or camaraderie with others is pivotal in providing some sense of emotional stability that is the basis to learn and thrive, both academically and socially. Schools are increasingly expected to cater for this function, and are willing purveyors of it, but they do have their limitations.
Contemporary educators must take on the challenge of molding our younger generation with a refreshed approach. The primary focus should not be on the fancy add-ons that our technological and economic advancement brings, but to bring back character building so that young adults grow up to become compassionate and courteous leaders. Today’s knowledge may not solve tomorrow's problem, but characters built today define the resolve we critically need to face future challenges.