Born into a family of Javanese nobility (priyayi) Dewantara was able to receive education in the Dutch East Indies: primary school (ELS) and STOVIA (medical school for natives). However, he would not finish STOVIA due to an illness. Instead he started working as a journalist, writing for several newspapers.

During his days as journalist, Dewantara started to become increasingly active in social and political movements that aimed to undermine Dutch authority in the Archipelago. His articles in printed media became imbued with anti-colonial sentiments. Dewantara had close ties with the Boedi Oetomo (the first native political institution in the Dutch Indies and which played a key role in the Indonesian National Awakening).

On 13 July 1913 Dewantara published an article in the 'De Expres' newspaper, titled "If I Were a Dutchman". This article included heavy criticism toward plans of the Dutch colonizers to collect levies from the native population to finance festivities related to the 100th celebration of Dutch independence from France. Dutch authorities did not allow such criticism and captured Dewantara - together with his colleagues, Ernest Douwes Dekker and Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo - and they were exiled to the Netherlands (the exile was also the result of their activities in the Indische Partij, one of the first political organizations pioneering Indonesian nationalism in the colonial regime).

During his exile in the Netherlands Dewantara obtained an European Teachers Certificate and he became acquainted with the ideas of Montessori and Froebel, western education pioneers. A few years later when he arrived back in the Archipelago he first established a school in Yogyakarta together with his brother. Later, in 1922, he founded the Taman Siswa school. Prior to Taman Siswa, education in the Archipelago was only open to Dutch people and those natives that were part of the nobility (which included Dewantara). Besides general knowledge, students were also taught to love the Archipelago and respect social equality (Dewantara himself would later scrap the Javanese title of Raden Mas in front of his name in a gesture to support social equality).

During the Japanese period (1942-1945) Dewantara, Soekarno, Muhammad Hatta and K.H. Mas Mansur were appointed as leaders of the People Power Center (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat), a Japanese-sponsored umbrella organization for all nationalist organizations on Java and Madura. After independence, Dewantara was appointed as Minister of Education and Culture in the first cabinet of Soekarno.

Interesting Trivia Facts:

Every year, on the second of May (Dewantara's birthday), Indonesia celebrates National Education Day.

 Dewantara is credited for coining the Javanese proverb "ing ngarso sung tulodo, ing madyo mangun karso, tut wuri handayani", meaning "those in front should set an example, those in the middle should raise the spirit, and those in the back should give encouragement". The part Tut Wuri Handayani is still used today as motto of Indonesia's Ministry of Education.


Susan Bennett |

Thanks to the writer of this column for a most informative slice of history