Essay 16: Exercises in a More Cosmopolitan Education: The Case of Technology

The great Indonesian writer Toer (Pramoedya Ananata Toer) died in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Nobel prize several times.

One of his classic tetralogies, written in political confinement, was the “Buru Quartet”:

The Buru Quartet:

The first volume is This Earth of Mankind. The book takes place in 1898 when the protagonist is 18 years old and a stand-in for Toer, the author of the work. 

The protagonist emphasizes the deep effect his European education had on him and how his love of Western science and technology altered his inner life:

“One of the products of science at which I never stopped marveling was printing, especially zincography. Imagine, people can produce tens of thousands of copies of any photograph in just one day: pictures of landscapes, important people, new machines, American skyscrapers. Now I could see for myself everything from all over the world upon these printed sheets of paper. How deprived had the generation before me been—a generation that had been satisfied with the accumulation of its own footsteps in the lanes of its villages. I was truly grateful to all those people who had worked so tirelessly to give birth to these new wonders.  Five years ago, there were no printed pictures, only block and lithographic prints, which gave very poor representations of reality.

Reports from Europe and America brought word of the latest discoveries. Their awesomeness rivaled the magical powers of the gods and knights, my ancestors in the wayang shadow puppet theater. Trains—carriages without horses, without cattle, without buffalo—had been witnessed now for over ten years by my countrymen

And astonishment remains in their hearts even today. The distance from Betawi to Surabaya can be traveled in only three days! And they’re predicting it will soon take only a day and a night! A day and a night! A long train of carriages as big as houses, full of goods, and people too, all pulled by water power alone.

If I had ever been so lucky as to meet Stephenson (British railway pioneer), I would have made him an offering of a wreath of flowers, all orchids.

A network of railway tracks splintered my island, Java. The trains’ billowing smoke colored the sky of my homeland with black lines, which faded into nothingness. It was as if the world no longer knew distance—it too had been abolished by the telegraph. Power was no longer the monopoly of the elephant and the rhinoceros. They had been replaced by small manmade things: nuts, screws, and bolts. And over there in Europe, people had begun making even smaller machines, with even greater power, or at least with the same power as steam engines. Indeed, not with steam—with oil. There were also vague reports saying that a German had made a vehicle that worked by electricity. Oh Allah, and I
I couldn’t really understand what electricity was!
The forces of nature were beginning to be changed by man and put to his service. People were even planning to fly…
One of my teachers had said: ‘Just a little while longer, just a little while, …machines will replace all and every kind of work. You are fortunate indeed, my students, he said, to be able to witness the beginning of the modern era here in the Indies.’
Modern! How quickly that word had surged forward and multiplied itself like bacteria throughout the world…”

(Toer, This Earth of Mankind, Avon Books, 1993, page 17)

The reader will sense that this upheaval and sense of possibility, described by Toer, will grip the world and revolutionize lives and minds in a way that will demand that all education ‘cosmopolitanize’ itself not leave parochial blinders behind. One might also sense the possibility of anti-modern backlash movements.