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Thai youthful thinking on education and democracy

A message from Thai youth to the World Forum for Democracy 2016 on ‘Democracy and equality – does education matter?’. Yes it does.

Rattana Lao
2 October 2016
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512px-Eva_Watson_Schütze_John_Dewey.jpg

John Dewey, by Eva Watson Schütze. Wikicommons, 1902. Some rights reserved

CHIANG MAI – On a rainy day with a smoggy sky, academics and students met to celebrate a hundredth year anniversary of Democracy and Education, a seminal work by John Dewey at the Faculty of Education, Chiang Mai University.

It was organised by a group of students' activists called “EDUZEN” or “Pola-learn”, which is a short form for Educators and Citizens. To kick off a series of six seminars, this inaugural session began with one of the most celebrated and contested texts in the Philosophy of Education.

“We can never educate directly but indirectly by means of the environment”, said Dewey. Therefore, “schools are meant to be the environments, the soil, the water that creates conversation and transmission of the young.” 

Dewey made constant comparisons of the young as flowers and society as the environment in which we raise and grow our children.

These EDUZEN, the Northern flowers so to speak, intended to do just that: create a public environment whereby classic critical thought is read, reflected and analysed – debated in the most critical and collegial way possible.

Burning questions propounded in the seminar include – how can Thai children grown up in an environment like that of Thailand? An environment that is so toxic in every single way: contaminated with abuse of power, limited freedom and patronage system, not to mention, run by a despotic dictatorship.  

Punnapat Nilchoat, a tenth grade student who travelled all the way from Lampang, a nearby province, to participate in this activity, gave a heart-breaking insight into the history lessons and textbooks he studied in class. 

“Dewey said we are flowers, but our soil is so polluted. Look at all the textbooks we read, they are nationalistic fictions wherein military men are portrayed as overt heroes and student activists who risked their lives for democracy in the 14 October demonstration are portrayed as despicable outcasts.” 

He went on to share his experience of education in a Thai classroom.

“In school, we are banned from bringing water into the classroom but our teachers are allowed it. When we raised the question, we were given a nasty lecture for an hour. We did not learn anything else in that class except that teachers have more privilege than students.”

“Why couldn’t she say that she was thirsty?,” Punnpat added, ending his presentation and leaving a bitter taste in everyone's mouth.

Unite Thailand. Painting by Arr-Chee.

Unite Thailand. Painting by Arr-Chee.Thai policymakers have been influenced by the thought of Dewey for decades. Concepts such as “child-centred approach” and “learning by doing” are replete in Thai policy papers. They made it into the central philosophy behind the National Education Act of 1999 – which is currently in use.

Despite all the rhetoric, top-down, seniority-driven rote learning is the reality in Thai classrooms.

Something said, something borrowed. 

But it is not fair to blame the demise of Thai education on Thai teachers, however. 

Apisith Bootwong, a fresh off the boat alumni of the Faculty of Education in Chiang Mai University and currently a public school teacher teaching history in Chiang Mai, offered a reflection on his experience as “an employee of the Thai state.”

“Everybody here talks as if the teacher is the bad guy. I feel I am the victim of this seminar because I work for the state, reiterate state propaganda and teach those badly written nationalistic textbooks every day. But the reality is much more complex than pointing the finger at teachers”.

“I teach 20 hours a week coupled with administrative duties and extensive paperwork to record every activity for all kinds of state assessment. I do want to give students space, voices and choices in classrooms. But it's hard. The reality is overwhelming and I just don't have the energy nor the time.”

Bootwong however gave a glimpse of hope for Thai education.

“Everyone blames Thai education, but if we look historically, the system must have done something right. The 1932 revolution was orchestrated by educated commoners, the 14 October was led by Thai university students, this very critical seminar is organised and funded by students. Things are not that bad.” 

The room was humming with theoretical discussion and political discontent. Educators and students went head to head to question the role of the Thai state with military leadership, extensive propaganda and suppression in every realm.

If Nature, Growth and Harmonisation are the key concepts of Dewey, is there room to grow Thai flowers?

These youth from the northern part of Thailand, frustrated with the limited horizon in their classrooms and in the state of the nation, show that there is hope: hope for dialogue, for debate and for discussion, even in the light of disagreement and so much discontent. 

As for the elections?

Dream on.

Flower arrangement by Amp Lao.

Flower arrangement by Amp Lao

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