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What Pramaoedya Ananta Toer Tried to Teach His Kids About Medicine and Critical Thinking

Pramaoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) was an award-winning Indonesian writer who was famous for the novels that he wrote during two long stints as a political prisoner. He was first jailed by the Dutch in 1947 for his anti-colonial activities, and then again by President Suharto for being a leftist from 1965 to 1979. (The Indonesian military also imprisoned him for nine months in 1961, but he did not write any books in that time. I guess he was just getting settled). The other day, as I was preparing to move, I stumbled across my former roommate’s copy of Toer’s autobiographical collection of letters, The Mute’s Soliloquy, and read some selections. What follows is not a detailed analysis or even a review, but just some thoughts on what Toer has to say about science-based medicine and critical thinking.

The Mute’s Soliloquy is an anthology of letters written in the Buru prison camp during Toer’s last imprisonment, but mostly never sent. Even being caught with paper could have gotten him killed, and it is tragic—yet somehow refreshing—that Toer risks his life to discuss on mundane subjects with his family, even when he knew that he could not get a reply. Then again, some of these subjects are hugely important for anyone to think about. Among these are medicine and health, and how they relate to spirituality and tradition.

The first of the two letters that are focused on this subject is addressed to Toer’s son Yudhistira. The letter makes an anecdotal but confident defense of science-based medicine. Toer begins by listing several superstitions that he endured as a child. One of these is burying the afterbirth from his younger siblings in an earthen vessel next to the house, along with “a letter written in Javanese, Arabic, and Roman scripts. This, I was told, was to ensure that the child would be able to write those three scripts with a beautiful hand” (238). (I’m quoting from Willem Samuels’ translation for Penguin). Needless to say, the burial ritual does not work: as Toer points out, if knowledge could be transferred in this way, there would be no need for schools. He also laments that people sought improvement from piety rather than education and action. (Toer says that he came from a fairly secular Muslim family [241]. Of course, Islam as it was practiced in circa 1930s Indonesia was different from how it was/is practiced in other times and places). He then tells about an occasion when he successfully had an infected toenail removed at a hospital and was thereafter impressed with modern medicine. He says that Yudhistira is fortunate to live in a more enlightened time: “knowledge and science, which depended not on mantra or intrigue, but on proven fact, could not be held back forever” (241).

The second letter to touch on these issues strikes a different note, however. Addressed to Tieknong, one of Toer’s daughters, this letter is less focused on health and spirituality: it also talks about career choices, romance, and women’s rights. Nonetheless, health is a prominent theme of the letter. Toer tells about how he sought to solve a persistent stomach problem while he was travelling, but no hospital in Europe or back home could come up with a cure that worked, and each had their own diagnosis. Toer eventually returns to Indonesia and ended up taking up exercise, and felt his condition improve. The lesson, he says, is “that one must fight to overcome one’s own weaknesses. And that is what you too, must do—whatever weakness in whatever field” (299). This is not exactly an endorsement of science-based medicine. He gives several other instances where he attributes positive health effects he has experienced to alternative medicine, and goes so far as to endorse reflexology and acupuncture, based on how they seem to have helped his fellow prisoners (301).

How can the apparent contradiction between these two letters be reconciled? Well, there are perhaps several ways, but I only have time for two. The first is simply acknowledging that Toer is writing illegal letters to his kids from prison, and not intending to have them anthologized together (as he clarifies in his foreword), much less writing a dissertation on evidence-based medicine. But more to the point: while the two letters espouse different attitudes towards science and medicine, they hold the same attitude towards critical thinking and individuality.

In the introduction to this section, Toer says that he wrote these letters—addressed, but unsent, to his children—because he felt powerless to protect his kids from the propagandistic education of the Suharto government (238). He earnestly wanted to protect them from having their minds warped by outside, perhaps pernicious, influences. This comes through in both letters. In the first, he tells Yudhistira that “Only a person with a free soul, a person who has no use for fear, can contribute to this world’s betterment.” The second letter also firmly expresses the hope that the minds of the next generation be free. But this time, it also says what they should be free from: an overreliance on the ideas of their parents: “You must build your own life for yourself and your future children,” Toer tells Tieknong. “Don’t permit your journey forward to be hindered by your parent’s past” (302). In fact, as much as Toer believes that society has progressed since he was young, he writes that

[B]ecause your future children’s generation will have to face challenges more serious than my generation or your generation ever had to face, the issue of “heritage” must forever be one of preeminent consideration; you must prepare yourself to give your children the kind of education they will need to find solutions to those challenges. A mother must be understanding, dynamic, and flexible. (304)

Toer does not explain what he means by “the issue of ‘heritage.’” It could mean that he believes that children should follow what their elders and traditions say. I’m sure that he believed this to a certain degree. But then, how can the next generation face the new challenges, and why should they be “flexible?” What I think Toer actually means is that the next generation should use the teachings of their ancestors as a tool to build a different, better society, rather than try to replicate the previous. Critical thinking makes for a good tool in this regard.

If we put the two letters together, Toer could be expressing a hope that his kids will be more science-minded than he ever was. Superstitions and faith in traditional medicines are hard things to shake—especially when you’re on a prison island with not much else. But maybe he is still able to recognize the shortcomings of those traditions. He was talking about more than stomach pain when he said “that one must fight to overcome one’s own weaknesses. And that is what you too, must do—whatever weakness in whatever field.” When Toer tells Yudhistira (in the first letter) that his generation will be more enlightened with regards to science and medicine, it could be a plea as much as a statement of fact. Science cannot exist without people to practice it and, well, believe it. Toer, if I’m reading him right, aspires for a future for his children where they are free to come to believe in science and critical thinking, even if it is too late for himself.

I’m not saying that Toer was secretly deep down A Real Pure Western Skeptic Free Thinker As Approved By Big Skepticism In Every Regardtm. That would do injustice to the personality and nuance of his letters. And like I say, there are almost certainly other answers for the apparent discontinuity between the two letters. Toer wrote many books and delivered many lectures, and maybe the answers can be found in those other sources. Regardless, whether or not his kids received the letters in time in order to be formed by them, I at least took a lesson or two away from reading them.

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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