We know that education is very important for children, and for us all, and that it has the power to change society for better or for worse.
Education is, of course, a tool for those in power and they can use it to control and manipulate people. During the absolute monarchy Thai students studied texts that supported the monarchy. At the time of the nationalist government, during World War II, the texts taught in schools supported the nationalist ideology. Now we have entered democracy but unfortunately the mummified remains of thecurriculums used during the absolute monarchy and the nationalist government are still present in our education system.
You may disagree with me about other things, but surely everyone must agree that education in modern times should be dynamic (rather than mummified). It should not be just a way to ensure power to those ruling the country. This is an age of technology and creative thinking and we should make sure that students in Thailand keep up with the rest of the world. However, as things now stand, our education system has been failed by a series of governments that have not practiced true democracy, and so the Thai students do not enjoy a level of education appropriate for this century.
Education and democracy correlate with one another: A democratic political system can influence education in positive ways and vice versa. This is because democracy allows different points of view and thus enables the development of various kinds of talents and ways of thinking. A constructive education system encourages critical thinking and an inquiring mind but the educationsystem in Thailand is not capable of offering these skills to the students. This is because it remains very much teacher-centered while children are blamed for lacking talent and are denied the right to develop themselves.
The problems in Thailand’s education system are well-known to everyone in the country and many people are working hard to find solutions. The root of these problems may, however, not be so much at the grassroots level, between students and teachers, nor even with the politicians. It might perhaps be necessary to look instead at the so called experts who set the guidelines for the system and yet do not seem to stand behind their words. They appear to support one thing in public but work against the same thing behind the scenes.
Why am I saying all this? Why am I questioning the words of education experts who are well-known to promote critical thinking, and according to whom free thinking helps students to develop? The answer is in what they have done after the coup. They seem to be very confused indeed!
Let me give you some examples:
You may have heard of Vicharn Panich. He is Professor of Medicine, chairman of the Knowledge Management Institute and chairman of the Mahidol University Council. Panich also has many other jobs, including a position as director and chairman of the Corporate Social Responsibility Committee of the Siam Commercial Bank Company. He is a public figure and often invited to lecture in different places. He has written many books about “Education for the 21st century”, promoting ideas related to knowledge management. The publication of his books has been supported by the Siam Commercial Bank Company.
Professor Panich obviously has a lot of influence and educators often refer to him. He is known to criticize the Thai education system somewhat frequently and he often talks about the responsibility of higher education institutes when it comes to developing our society. He supported the anti-government protests that broke out against Yingluck’s government and, after the coup, he has been trying to justify the army’s actions to his foreign friends and followers through writings in his blog. I cannot help but ask, is his support for military rule really in line with his theories about democracy and education?
Another prominent education theorist who has contradicted himself since the coup is Chetana Nagavachara, Professor Emeritus of German at the Silpakorn University. He is a drama and literature critic who studied in Germany and who, like Professor Panich, has a lot of experience and plenty of influence in the fields of basic and higher education.
Nagavachara worked as a colleague of Pin Malakul who was the Minister of Education during the time of Dictator Sarit Thanarut. Malakul’s influence is still strong today and, because of several years spent in Malakul’s company, Nagavachara is well aware of the longstanding issues related to mismanagement in Thai universities.
He has criticized the commercial tendencies in higher education, saying that it is impossible to teach free and critical thinking in such environments. He always refers to “Liberal Education” and to ideas by Bertolt Brecht and Wilhelm von Humboldt. He can sweet talk his audience into supporting his beautiful thoughts and he is known to encourage Thai educators to have dignity and not to slavishly follow Western trends.
However, after the coup Nagavachara wrote a letter to his Western friends explaining the reasons behind the latest coup, He stated that the motivation was to prevent the loss of lives and to clear corruption. At the end of the letter he makes a request of his friends: “Do not condemn us but do please pray for us.”
Nagavachara and his friends form a gang of famous elders who support the coup. Probably even more famous is their middle-aged colleague Sompong Chitradup, Associate Professor at the Chulalongkorn University. He is an interesting speaker and easy to understand which is why he pleases large audiences. He often appears on TV news and is regularly invited as a speaker to various events. Whenever there is news about education, Chitradup is to be heard.
According to Chitradup, democracy in schools is impossible to achieve so long as the students are not encouraged to question, analyze and innovate. He claims that only 12% of Thai people dare think differently and that the low percentage is because of the current education system.
Before the coup Chitradup criticized both the anti-government protestors and the government, saying that neither party had any interest in problems related to Thai education. One of his criticisms was that the failed education system is responsible for the failing political system. After the coup Chitradup has shown-interest in taking the job of reforming Thai education and has offered his services to the second in charge of the coup, General Narong Pipattanasai, who leads the department of social psychology, also known to conduct propaganda. Does Chiradup really think that Pipattanasai wants him to come and plan a curriculum that promotes democratic values? Probably not since he recently encouraged the junta to thoroughly reconstruct the curriculum and include more ‘Thainess’ in all subjects instead of just making ‘citizen duty’ its own subject. This is despite the fact that prior to the coup Chitradup publicly called for a more internationally oriented curriculum. I must say that Associate Professor Chitradup has managed to confuse me with his contradictory comments.
We have seen that the Council of University Presidents of Thailand (CUPT) that strongly opposed Yingluck’s government, now remains in silence with regard to the coup. It has also been very surprising to listen to the individual professors make statements about the coup. The professors in question, have always claimed that democracy is important for education but now they completely ignore this and openly support the coup and military rule.
Don’t they know that many students, such as Apichat Pongsawat, 25, have tried to use their right to think differently only to be defamed and arrested by the army? Why do Professor Panich and his colleagues ignore this obviously non-democratic situation taking place in their own universities?
In his recent book “From Selfless Giving To Commodification – The Dilemma Of Higher Education” Professor Nagavachara discusses the weak points of the education system in Thailand, saying that we are not selective enough when we adopt the western system. He does, however, agree with ideas presented by the western thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt and quotes him:
The university teacher is therefore no longer a teacher and the student no longer someone merely engaged in the learning process but a person who undertakes his own research, while the professor directs his research and supports him in it. (Wilhelm von Humboldt, GS, XIII, p. 261/).
Education will be good to the extent that it suffers no outside intervention; it will be all the more effective, the greater the latitude left to the diligence of the teachers and the emulation of their pupils. (GS, I, p. 146).
These are very good ideals but I do not see how they relate to Nagavachara supporting the coup. Does he not know about the junior academics who conducted their own research, applying free thinking, and who now have been silenced by the military? Has he not heard that the army forced student activists at Khonkaen University to sign an agreement to stop all political activity? Did the news of a group of student activists who organized the event “Eat Sandwiches” and were stopped by the army, escape his ears? Is Nagavachara joking when he refers to humanist attitudes in educators but ignores this kind of treatment of university students? Does he not think that this is something to be worried about?
Dear Professors, you claim that Yingluck’s government was corrupt but do you not know about the corruption in all levels of bureaucracy, not excluding the universities?
I want to ask those of you who are seated in one or several university councils or committees: Do you fulfill all your commitments and sit through all the meetings of your respective councils? Can you transparently follow your university chancellor’s work? Is there democracy in your universities? I think you are aware of all problems that exist there but it seems to me that you just don’t care. You write books but you don’t practice what you preach. You hold ideals but you overlook the problems that come your way.
Recently the Officer of Basic Education of Thailand (OBEC) banned the criticizing of the military junta in Thai schools and made the following statement:
We will improve modules in history, citizen duty, and morality, in accordance with the NCPO’s policy, so that the children will know about unity and love for their country.
They also say that “in principle, we will be placing more importance on patriotism, national pride and the notion of a national identity. The monarchy must be given the highest respect and recognized as the institution that has played an invaluable role in the formation of the nation.”
This is obviously part of the brainwashing process that they have launched as is the recent introducing of singing nationalistic songs in schools by the Deputy Minister of Education. There is a selection of 35 patriotic songs that the schools can choose from but none of them have anything to do with education of course.
Even more recently, The Office of the Higher Education Commission sent orders to all universities to closely monitor any stage performances produced by students to make sure they do not include any criticisms towards the junta.
Is this really what Thai educators have hoped for? What is your bet? Will the level of education in Thailand suffer or improve under the junta’s control? Is this the new Thai democracy? Highly esteemed experts of Thai education, please answer my questions.
Professor Panich, do the above mentioned tendencies represent the “Thai education for the 21st century” that you have been longing for?
Professor Nagavachara, is this in accordance with your ideals of “Humanism in Education”?
Associate Professor Chitradup, is this really “Civil Education”?
What stops you dear professors from disagreeing with the army? Maybe you are under the illusion that the army is actually protecting the people? Or are you perhaps protecting yourselves?
I urge you, esteemed professors, together with all Thai educators, to seek to practice the conscious policies that you have talked about in public. There is no point lecturing on Democracy and Humanism if one is not capable of following one’s own words.
Are educators in Thailand ever going to learn from past mistakes? I am not sure, but I am not giving up hope even if the older generation of educators remains silent in front of the junta, too afraid to say what they really think, silently watching as the junta, in the name of returning happiness to the people, destroys all progress that has been achieved in our education system.
The reason I do not allow myself to give up hope is that I actually think we should no longer look towards the older generation of educators. It is time for us to open our eyes and see the young people who want to reform education in our country and who dare to stand up against the army in the name of democracy, not betraying their own ideals.
Even if there is darkness in Thailand at the moment, we, the young Thai people, keep hoping that it can indeed be overcome!
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is the former chief-editor of Pajarayasala journal in Thailand and currently works to protect democracy in Thailand