The pros and (mostly) cons of school orientations

By admin, in Observations on .

A new academic year is coming. It’s still several months away, but quite a few schools have already put up banners announcing enrolment options or pointing out that so and so from grade so and so scored perfect marks for math in the latest national exam. Now, unless you happen to be a parent looking for a new school, you might have missed these early signs of the coming school year; but in a couple months’ time, the signs will be hard to miss.

We are, of course, talking about new students starting out in junior high, high school, and college walking around with silly paper hats, huge signboards in garish colours hung around their necks, and (usually) pigtails with brightly hued ribbons for the girls. In other words, new students undergoing the age old tradition of ospek —campus orientation. And by “orientation” we mean “hazing.”

To be fair, there’s plenty of actual orientation going on during a typical ospek period in a typical Indonesian school/university—and it’s not just about introducing new students to the layout, traditions, and inhabitants of the school, but also to what kind of workload and performance standards expected from them.

Case in point: Many of my high school friends went on to major in architecture. One of their first tasks during their faculty’s ospek was to craft their very own nametags. Instead of the usual square piece of paper that you shove into a plastic badge holder, what they were told to make were intricate three-dimensional objects featuring layers of cardboard (of the type they use for those building mock ups) and craft paper. More importantly, the design called for extremely precise measurements and a very narrow margin for error. Back in high school, this would have been a multi-week arts and craft assignment. At the time, my friends had one night. But it was a pretty good indication of what they would have to deal with when classes actually started. (Oh, okay… architecture majors don’t start making mock ups on day one; but you get the idea.)

On the flip side, a week or so later, one senior lecturer in the architecture department raised hell after an entire room of first years dozed off in the middle of class. As anybody familiar with the tradition can attest to, ospek will usually entail meet-ups, marches, and all manners of initiation rites that go well into the night. Sometimes an ospek can last a week or two, sometimes much longer—especially on campuses where there’s a different ospek for the faculty level, the department level, and for the student association.

Sometimes the assignments make sense (the nametag example above), more often than not they do not. Sometimes the hazing is purely mental (again, the nametag example above), quite often they turn physical. Sometimes the hazing borders on harassment, sometimes people die. And let’s not get into the details of either.

So, things change. In some schools, orientation programs run by senior students are banned altogether, while others opt for more positive methods along the lines of trust-building exercises or even all-out fun with activities à la Takeshi’s Castle. (I just gave out my age with that reference, didn’t I?) This isn’t nearly as universally accepted as it could have been, but the change is palpable as more and more new students are given the opportunity to become familiar with the new institution they’ve just signed up for without getting yelled at all the time.

All’s well ends well, no?

Well, it’s not exactly that clear cut. As our ospek culture gradually turned softer, voices of discontent started popping up. You wouldn’t find people being openly “pro-ospek,” of course. Goodness, no. But there are whispered grumblings from lecturers and teachers, murmured curses by senior students, and quiet lamentations by corporate head-hunters.

See, Indonesia, in particular, has traditionally been very hierarchical. This is what basically enables generation after generation of students to haze their newest ranks with impunity. Seniority matters, and was enforced—ruthlessly, if necessary. At the same time, higher levels of education granted increased degrees of freedom and independence. High school students were expected to be more independent than junior high students; college level students enjoy an even higher level of on-campus freedom; and so on.

Problem is (unpopular opinion ahead; you’ve been warned) our education system and its many sub-parts run smoothly in part due to the aforementioned hierarchical getup. And a bit of ospek-style hazing is one way to maintain it. Now, this teeters dangerously close to overgeneralization and/or oversimplification of what is actually quite a complex cultural issue, but the simple fact is that there is a lack of appreciation for freedom and independence in education among Indonesia’s younglings—especially nowadays. Free from the militaristic traditions prevalent in the earlier levels of education, many new students—college students in particular—adopt a more cavalier attitude to the formalities of formal education.

It’s subtle. You might hear a lecturer grumbling about students showing little deference to their authority class; you might come across seniors in extracurricular clubs complaining about having to cope with new members who treat the unit like a service provider; or you might pick up a tale or two from managers and supervisors being annoyed by know-it-all fresh grads who act as if job descriptions are as flexible as homework assignments.

I will end this discussion with another case study. I happen to know one young woman and one young man (brother and sister actually) who went to Taruna Nusantara, a boarding high school known for its military-like discipline, and a lot of it was physical in nature. There was a well-established and thoroughly enforced pecking order, and the hazing—well, let’s just say that compared to a regular high school, life at Taruna Nusantara would look almost like a three-year-long ospek. But everything was kept in check and you’d be hard pressed to find incidents of hazing-related injury, mental anguish, or even depression.

And the aforementioned brother and sister? They did really well in college (and later work) with many of their peers, seniors, and teachers remarking about their self-discipline, their self-confidence, and, most importantly, their manners. It’s quite telling when you hear about common manners described as something extraordinary.

So, do we need more militancy in our schools? Do we need to have institutionalized hazing to ensure compliance with the echelons of campus life? Of course not. But, as archaic or outmoded as it may sound, knowing one’s place in new communities is an important life skill. And when you need to acquire that skill in a hurry, a serving of campus orientation with just a touch of good-natured hazing might not be such a bad idea after all… (JOSH GERARD)

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