This paper explores the process of the decolonization of Indonesian higher education during the 1950s by examining the social duties that became central to its mission since independence. Having served as a seeding ground for modernization in the early twentieth century, higher education in Indonesia embarked on a new trajectory of development in the 1950s, in which aims of achieving ‘true independence’ had a central place. The new national leaders asserted that Indonesian higher education should be ‘locally and contextually situated’ in order to promote national identity and economic progress. To achieve this, a community service program was enacted. It obliged lecturers and students to live with a community for a certain period in order to help them solve social problems such as combating illiteracy and improving the hygiene of their living environment.
On the basis of government archives and universities’ program reports, this paper argues that community service and social engagement programs challenged the ‘ivory tower’ concept of higher education, which characterized universities in Europe. These community service obligations established new dynamics of knowledge circulation, which were a departure from previous, colonial practices.
The program, however, was wrought with ambivalence, as it embodied the Javanese cosmological concept of the unity between “Kawula” (subject) and “Gusti” (lord). The program, and the empowerment of the people it envisaged, depended so much on the educated elite. While aiming to decolonize, the community service program became a political instrument which swung between the national government’s discourse of ‘true independence’ and a neo-traditionalist practice.