It is a strange irony that in Thailand a small group of people can take over the country at gun point, yet no one can turn round and tell them to f*ck off without somehow occupying the moral low ground.
Many times, after making ‘strong’ statements about the junta, or about social and political issues in general, I have been told by Thai colleagues, typically academics, that it is inappropriate for me, as an `educator’, to use harsh language to express my opinions. Doesn’t it set a bad example to my students? Shouldn’t I, as an educator, `educate’ people instead of always criticizing? 1
As an academic, speaking to other academics, I considered this a curious response – at first. In a single instance, encountering such knee jerk conservatism, not to mention fundamental lack of understanding of an academic’s raison d’etre, could be easily dismissed. Only gradually, but with an increasing sense of disbelief and horror, did I begin to realize that such attitudes, far from being rare in a Thai university environment, are almost uniformly held by those responsible for `educating’ the nation’s youth.
But, before going any further, let me introduce myself. I am a physical scientist, working as a lecturer and researcher at a Thai university. I am not a political scientist, a specialist in educational theory, in Southeast Asian studies, Thai studies, or any other branch of the social sciences. In my daily working life I am concerned more with waves and particles, fields and forces, and the paradoxes of simultaneously dead-and-alive cats which plague modern quantum theory, than with the complex and infuriatingly nuanced interactions of human society. Yet I am a part of that society. I was born with both a heart and a brain. Through a combination of innate capacity and training I acquired the ability, and hence the responsibility, to think critically and to judge. Such, in my world, are the aims of education. I moved to Thailand about 18 months ago, and my world changed drastically.
Through my work, I was shocked to encounter foreign academics, familiar with the Thai university system, that all but refused to refer to Thai academics as qualified, preferring instead the term `credentialed’. In short, I was shocked to find that the possession of bachelor’s, master’s or even Ph.D. certificates from Thai institutions are not seen as guarantees of basic competence at an international level, comparable with their nominal equivalents elsewhere in the world (including other developing countries). This is true to a lesser degree in the physical vis-à-vis the social sciences but is still a widespread problem.
These impressions are born out by the Times Higher Education (THE) World Reputation Rankings Report for 2015, in which no Thai institution made the top 100 list (the rankings are based on a survey of 10,500 academics in 142 countries, conducted in 15 languages). 2 Though I agree with UNESCO that emphasis on rankings alone is misleading and harmful, especially for developing countries, 3 after 18 months, I am in no doubt that it is time to “get real about bad education” in Thailand. 4
The reasons for institutional failure are many and complex. 5 While poor quality education isn’t exactly breaking news, most media attention has focused on deficiencies at primary and secondary school levels. 6 This undoubtedly produces a drag effect on achievement in higher education, but it is not these failures I wish to discuss. Rather, I would like to draw attention to the cases in which Thai education may be said to have “succeeded”, at least by those who claim to be educated themselves.
I believe it is the culture of Thai academia that is most harmful to the country’s higher education system. This view is necessarily based on personal, and therefore limited experience, but I do not think my experiences are unique. It also presupposes a certain loose definition of what `higher’ education entails; its ideals, its value to individuals and its place in society.
Many grand philosophical works have been written on this subject, but allow me to summarize my position: The ultimate aim of education is the development of the individual’s ability to think critically and independently. It is not synonymous with the acquisition of knowledge, but implies it, since otherwise the judgments of the `educated’ remain baseless.
Education encourages respect for evidence and rational argument, as opposed to unthinking acceptance, blind devotion or susceptibility to herd pressure. It does not encourage a disinterested detachment from the world of human affairs, and places no a priori restrictions on what can and cannot be said. If forced to choose, personified Education values rational enquiry and intellectual and moral integrity over politeness. She exerts the right to offend in the name of progress.
Alas, this lofty vision seems not to be shared by Thai education officials. Bizarrely, Thai Ministry of Education (MoE) strategic plans are fond of espousing lofty `moral’ principles, which are never clearly defined, while being simultaneously infused with narrow nationalist rhetoric. Their aims (apparently) include: “a five year strategic plan, based on a collective vision of Thai society as a “Green and Happy Society,” where Thai people are endowed with morality-based knowledge and resilience against the adverse impacts of globalization” and “[promoting] studies in Thai language and history to instill a sense of Thainess”. 7 One wonders why, if `moral’ principles are so clearly understood as to require no explanation, they need be so aggressively pursued as an `educational’ goal in the national curriculum. Most tellingly in these documents, the word “history” seldom (if ever) appears, except in the context of “Thai history”, a concept Streckfuss has linked to that of “Thai truth”. 8
Of all the strategic plans and mission statements released by Thai education authorities (at least those that I have found 9), not one lists the development of critical or independent thinking as goal of education. As a counterpoint, this may be compared with remarks of education officials elsewhere in the world, such as the U.K.’s education minster Michael Gove. 10 Nevertheless, a shallow and unhelpful bureaucratic `vision’ doesn’t necessarily imply an unhealthy academic culture, if tensions between the two exist. Despite isolated exceptions, I see little evidence of a culture clash between Thai officialdom and the `educators’ charged with implementing their policies on the ground.
That said, in what follows, I do not wish to imply that there are no gifted academics, inspiring teachers, or inspired students in Thai universities. Such a characterization would be as unfair as it is inaccurate. It is the system as a whole that concerns me and my view is based on the resistance I encountered to my own attempts to behave, in Thailand, as an `educated’ person is expected to behave in a `democratic’ country.
Though I don’t usually approve of claims for Thai exceptionalism, I am not new to Asia, nor to living working and teaching outside my native country, the U.K., and only here have I found regressive and damaging views of education to be common among the `educated’. Only in Thailand have I repeatedly been told by peers that, rather than commenting critically on social and political issues – most notably the military, the coup, the monarchy, economic policies and electoral democracy (or lack thereof) – I ought instead to `educate’ people.
I am not speaking of comments uttered in my capacity as a teacher. I teach under the watchful eye of the King, whose portrait has been gazing down on me from the wall of my classroom since shortly after the coup d’etat of May last year, when someone saw fit to demonstrate their loyalty by placing it there. 11 As far as I am concerned, the classroom is not the place for either my personal political opinions, or for visible demonstrations of theirs, although the university administrators concur only with regard to the former.
In Thailand, it is the expression of critical opinions in public (or with a de facto audience via social media), which is considered somehow inappropriate – and morally suspect – for someone in my `position’. I accept that there should be limits on my personal freedom of expression in the classroom. But, if even academics cannot comment freely as individuals without bringing their `profession’ into disrepute, what hope is there for free discussion in the classroom? 12
The basic implication (and unstated assumption) behind this criticism of criticism is that any comment deemed offensive to someone else cannot possibly be `educational’. It therefore cannot be valid, coming as it does from a supposed `educator’, regardless of its contents. In reality, this means offensive to someone with power and status, or to some abstract concept like `Thailand’, `the Thai people’ or `Thai-ness’. 13
True to the stereotype of foreign expats I encountered in Europe, my experience suggests that at least male farang can say what they like about bar girls, lady-boys and farmers (or anyone with dark skin) and the much vaunted Thai `tolerance’ will protect them from any serious repercussions. On the other hand, stating that many Thai women are driven to work as prostitutes by systemic economic inequality, or that many who do are the daughters of impoverished farmers, is considered an inappropriate statement for an educated person to make. Personal abuse of “what is low” is fine, criticism of “what is high” – presumably the entire `Thai nation’ (i.e. Thailand, minus prostitutes and ethnic minorities) – is not 14 15: tolerance and education do not extend into the inappropriate realm of facts.
If, instead, we `good’ (read `educated’) farang stand with due deference when the national anthem is played in cinemas and show appropriate respect for the monarchy at 8pm every evening, 16 we will be met with shrill cries of “Thank you! You understand Thai culture! You are not like these stupid farang! (who are always criticizing)” 17 – at least by nauseatingly vacuous, supposedly `educated’, self-appointed guardians of said `culture’. Conversely, expressing distaste for such enforced rituals is a sign of poor education and cultural insensitivity, regardless of how exploitative, or constructive, our other contributions to Thai society may be. “Guardians of Thai-ness” 18 aren’t difficult to find, since they will generally seek out foreigners to `educate’ and, initially, they seem like the friendliest bunch of narrow-minded people you’re ever likely to meet. They not infrequently reside within the upper echelons of the Thai university system.
On closer inspection, many not-so-secretly harbor quasi-fascist sympathies, strong opposition to representative government, and an abject contempt for `uneducated’ poor people who (in their imaginations), live mainly in the countryside. 19 More disturbingly, it would be naïve to assume that their presence does not help reinforce social divisions within the student body, or that new undergraduates from the lower rungs of the social scale are not reminded of their place via the ubiquitous SOTUS system, endorsed by university authorities. 20
What is perplexing from an academic perspective is not that such people exist, but their self-identification as an `educated’ elite, in contradistinction to the `uneducated’, whose views cannot be trusted on weighty issues due to their low level of intelligence and lack of understanding of important topics. What is amazing is that the Thai `elite’ are the least elite `elite’ imaginable. They must also be the only group of people of average intelligence and familiarity with Thailand who don’t realize this basic fact.
The uneducated, sadly, do realize. They have “ta sawang” – opened their eyes. The universities, the seats of `learning’, have yet to grasp the idea that fostering such mental and personal development is the very essence of their purpose. `Education’ remains, in most cases, simply a tool for social advancement. The holder of a master’s degree is superior to a bachelor’s degree holder (and expects due deference). A Ph.D. graduate is concomitantly superior to both. At no point does anyone ask if he or she might as well have wiped his or her arse on his or her degree certificate instead of framing it and hanging it on the wall of mummy and daddy’s shop, car dealership or government office – below the Buddha and the King, obviously. 21 22And this is the kind of criticism that lands me in hot water with my colleagues.
Yet it is not the student’s fault: it is their teacher’s. If they did not arrive at university believing that their magical absorption of “high-ness”, by sitting in a classroom for four years and not doing anything, is all that is required to demand appropriate subservience from those who are “low”, they sure as hell are likely to leave believing it – assuming that they perform all the right rituals and don’t harbor any dirty subversive thoughts revealing their inner wickedness and stupidity. 23
So, having revealed my total lack of morality, and hence my unfitness to `educate’ the youth of Thailand, let me speak plainly and try to summarize some of the major problems, as I see them, with the current Thai `education’ system.
In Thailand, one cannot criticize strongly without revealing one’s lack of moral authority to make a criticism. Bad words equal bad intentions, and bad intentions imply false statements. How can a bad person say something that is true? An `educator’ would not say such things, since an educator must be `good’, right?
As content is immaterial, any attempt to encourage open or rigorous discussion about anything of worth is usually over before it begins. What takes its place is pure theatre – the pretense of debate. What matters in the end are rank and the identity of the speaker, not the contents of the speech. With some valiant exceptions, 24 what is generally true in wider society is especially true within Thai `academic’ culture which, rather than being part of the solution, is in fact part of the problem. It comes as little surprise then, that few university departments in Thailand make any effort to engage in research internationally, submit work to international journals, or to otherwise expose the views of their `learned’ Professors to outside scrutiny. 25 Alas, ignorant farang don’t realize how exalted and rarefied are the opinions of their Thai counterparts, and insist on arguing with them – even in front of their inferiors!
Streckfuss has linked this attitude to surviving “premodern” elements in Thai laws and institutions, most notably the influence of Theravada Buddhism 26:
Thus, although the outlook of the Thai elite retained many premodern elements, it was by the early twentieth century expressed in modern legal forms.
[In the Thai Theravada tradition] Ill intention may also be evident by the form of something said (e.g. coarse words automatically indicate bad intentions)
Criticism of the regime: allowed ideally, but in practice impossible, and merely a sign of [the] moral turpitude of [the] critic.
It is striking how what he describes as “defamation thinking” resonates with my own personal experience of the everyday life of an `academic’ in 21st century #AmazingThailand.
I have been told, by university professors, as starkly and as nakedly as this: “It doesn’t matter how clever, or how funny what you say is, if it makes Thailand look bad, you shouldn’t say it!” In other words, under no circumstances should an educated person belittle their (falsely) exalted status by bringing any degree of wit or intelligence to bear on questions of crucial importance. If it contradicts a set of predetermined assumptions, it is automatically both factually and morally wrong, though the question of a statement’s veracity is actually never raised.
Such a warped perspective of `morality’ necessarily places extremely stringent constraints upon what, elsewhere in the world, would be called the robustness of political (or indeed any form of intellectual) debate. It allows the holders of power to control not only events on the ground, but also the discourse concerning the validity (or morality) of their actions. It must be resisted at all costs, and the moral right to question and criticize, irrespective of `politeness’, must be reasserted, especially by academics.
Thai academia promotes an `ideal’ of education based on faux morality and a self-sustaining, essentially anti-intellectual culture. As a popular social media post, that received many `likes’ among my Thai university colleagues says, “Many people are educated, but not totally mannered mannered”. Well, here’s my view: “Many people are `mannered’, but by no means educated.” As long as `polite’ ignorance is preferred to passionate skepticism, genuine enquiry will be shouted down by false virtue, and demons will be allowed to lurk in the shadows, where best they thrive. Students, learning by example, whatever their innate capacities or potential, will become dull and (eventually) as ossified and pointless as their teachers – who taught them dullness in the first place.
In order to genuinely benefit their students, their country and themselves, Thai academics must recognize the difference between civil discourse and civil society, of which a healthy academic environment is an indispensable part. They must fulfill their responsibility to question the society they live in, instead of being content to feather their own social nests with the fruits of indefensible hierarchy. 27 They must learn to give and to take criticism, to win their debates by force of argument, rather than using status and fake `morality’ to silence awkward questions.
If they cannot, Thai `education’ will remain an empty badge of undeserved privilege, rather than a guarantee of skill; let alone a force for social mobility or human progress. If they cannot, what will they `teach’ their students, and with what authority can they call themselves educators at all?
The author of this pieces writes under a pseudonym and currently works at a Thai university in a teaching capacity.
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia (Issue 17), Young Academic’s Voice, July 2015
- The parallels between statements of this kind and the outbursts of Thailand’s current military dictator – also considered an unacceptably harsh characterization, coming from an `educator’ – are chilling: ‘Do not criticize, do not start problems’: Thailand’s military junta leader warns rivals and protesters as he is officially endorsed by king: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2639419/Do-not-criticize-not-start-problems-Thailands-military-junta-leader-warns-rivals-protesters-officially-endorsed-king.html#ixzz3cAfVhhsH. ↩
- Thai institutions not recognized in worldwide ranking of institutes,http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Thai-universities-not-recognised-in-worldwide-rank-30255921.html. Only two Thai universities are ranked within the top 100 in the THE Asian University Rankings https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2013-14/regional-ranking/region/asia, while five make the QS top 100 listhttp://www.thaivisa.com/forum/topic/736703-two-thai-universities-in-asian-higher-education-rankings/ ↩
- http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20110521105752138. ↩
- See http://www.ait.ac.th/news-and-events/do-university-rankings-truly-measure-up#.VXf6clWqqko and references therein. ↩
- For research specific to Thailand, see Education and Knowledge in Thailand: The Quality Controversy, by Alain Mounier and Phasina Tangchuang, Silkworm Books, 2010. ↩
- See, for example http://thaitribune.org/contents/detail/298?content_id=11693&rand=1433470245 andhttp://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Lao-children-are-better-educated-than-Thai-kids-30243024.html. Conceited belief in the automatic superiority of all things `Thai’ will only compound the problem. Despite the critical tone of the article, the findings are referred to as “startling”. ↩
- Towards a Learning Society in Thailand: http://www.bic.moe.go.th/th/images/stories/book/ed-eng-series/intro-ed08.pdf. ↩
- Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-Majesté, in Rethinking Southeast Asia, Routledge, 2011. ↩
- See also http://www.inter.mua.go.th/ and links therein. ↩
- According to Mr Gove, U.K. government education policy aims to ensure an academic curriculum that can “stimulate critical thinking and creativity”, even at pre-university level:https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-purpose-of-our-school-reforms. Whatever their value as a political sound-bite, his remarks respond to pressure from society in general, and academia in particular, to promote what A. Einstein called ” what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”:http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins108304.html#R3QcCIlMLeOOTKl6.99. ↩
- Had the portrait been there from the beginning, rather than as someone’s transparent post-coup attempt to curry favor with staunchly royalist `superiors’, I would not have objected to it. ↩
- Unfortunately, this attitude is a growing problem, not only in Thailand, but also in the `Western’ worldhttp://www.thenation.com/article/204481/new-thought-police. What matters is whether a counter tradition exists, and whether `educators’ stand (and speak) with courage, or succumb meekly to muted banality under the guise of `good morals’. ↩
- Yes, `Thailand’ counts as an abstract concept when one considers metaphysically `offending’ it. ↩
- I have heard these phrases used to `justify’ whether criticism is appropriate or not, depending on the subject, by Thai university professors. ↩
- To be fair, some statements in the Office of the Higher Education Commission report (footnote 8), are a step in the right direction, for example “The plan calls for creation of cultural understanding and tolerant, recognition and cultivation of values among Thais that Thailand is a country of multi-faceted nature and multi-culturalism”, but the attitude of top `educators’ remains disturbing (see footnote 19). ↩
- The half-hour long Royal News is broadcast, on every Thai TV channel, at 8pm every evening. ↩
- My emphasis. ↩
- c.f. Streckfuss (footnote 8). ↩
- Urban poor are apparently invisible. The patronizing contempt of `educators’ also extends effortlessly to ethnic minorities: “Because of I.T. from Her Royal Highness, people in remote area can learn Thai language. If they know Thai language they can get an honest job. If they don’t know Thai language they can become minority and can do something against the law” – from a speech entitled `HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s Initiatives for Science and Technology for the well-being and benefit of Thai citizens’ by Professor Pairash Thajchayapong, at the opening ceremony of the SIAM Physics Congress 2015, 20th May 2015, Krabi, Thailand. I quote from memory and the notes I was able to scribble down during the speech itself. ↩
- `Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit’, see http://asiancorrespondent.com/132574/thailand-university-hazing/ and http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Fight-for-human-rights-focuses-on-Thai-university–30207093.html for more information. ↩
- I have at times faced pressure to give passing grades, or even `good’ C+ grades, to Ph.D. students who scored less than 10% in courses based on stripped-down versions of my own undergraduate lecture notes. ↩
- I made the decision to come to Thailand, so I must respect its laws – even if I profoundly disagree with them. Unfortunately, this includes the infamous article 112 of the Thai criminal code on Lèse-majesté. In order to prevent any potential misunderstanding, let me be absolutely clear. It is a well-known (and well publicized) fact that, every year, members of the Thai royal family spend many days awarding degree certificates to new graduates, especially at the nation’s ‘elite’ universities. What I am saying here is not in opposition to this practice (though I oppose it for other reasons). Royals may present graduates with their degrees, but it is the universities that are responsible forconferring them. If, every year, hundreds of hours are wasted giving out essentially worthless degree certificates – which are presented in good faith – it is the awarding institutions that are responsible. I leave it up the reader to decide whether the nation’s top ‘educators’ are also guilty of insulting members of the country’s ‘most revered institution’ by wasting their time. ↩
- Thankfully, some do. Some even want to learn, though this involves a certain amount of swimming against the current. ↩
- See, for example http://titipol.blogspot.hk/2014/12/happy-new-year-2015-voicing-our-right.html. Thankfully, despite all the efforts of `educators’, the youth of Thailand often set a better example than their elders:http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/4434. ↩
- Only two Thai universities made the THE Asian University Rankings top 100 (footnote 2), which, among other things, measures international impact in research. ↩
- c.f. Streckfuss (footnote 8). ↩
- http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/mixed-metaphors. ↩