The fight against Thailand’s archaic and militaristic education system

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 31, 2013

We have previously highlighted the dismal state of Thailand’s education system and have explored the various reasons for its failures: from ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net tests, questionable standardization of these tests, to poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency or virtually non-existent sexual education – there’re a lot of problem spots that doesn’t bode well for the present but also for the (near-)future of the country economically, but also culturally.

Previous governments have only thrown more money at the problem and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, while promising on a press conference after her election victory in 2011 to shift the focus on “life-long learning”, her administration’s best known education policy has been so far handing out free tablet PCs. But the problems lie much deeper.

The New York Times recently ran a story pointing to the root cause of our aching education system:

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code.

(…) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

This unquestioned discipline also reflects in the learning methods: rote learning, repetitious memorization is still widespread in Thai classrooms.

Another apparent factor is the enforced uniformity of Thai students: apart from the uniforms – Thailand is one of very few countries worldwide that requires even university students to wear uniforms – Thai schoolchildren have strict guidelines of hair cuts (boys have to wear a crew cut, girls can’t grow their hair longer than the neckline and dyeing is absolutely prohibited) from very early on.

But this archaic regulation (dating back to 1972 during the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn) is undergoing a change since earlier this year, as the Education Ministry is proposing to relax these rules following a recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC) as we have previously reported and commented:

Hair on Thai school children’s heads has become a national policy issue. The student hair debate has been simmering and finally came to a boil after a schoolboy filed a complaint with the NHRC in December 2011. The complaint said that the school regulation prohibiting all hairstyles except the crew cut for boys and ear-lobe-length bob for girls is in violation of children’s human rights and that the schools allowing selected students such as those engaged in classical art performances to wear long hair is discrimination against other students subject to the hair rule. (…)

Since the student’s complaint to the NHRC in 2011 made the news, academics, policy makers, government officials and leading thinkers have weighed in with both pros and cons. The larger public recently jumped into the fray following the NHRC ruling in November 2012 and the decision by the education ministry just before Children’s Day. (…)

Perhaps these people are oblivious to the new reality that Thailand is in the midst of change – more young Thais are now getting a taste of questioning and blind obedience can no longer be taken for granted. Today’s Thai youth are rushing headlong into the 21st century, only to be pulled back by the hair – so to speak – by arcane rules. However, at least some Thai grown-ups are beginning to appreciate the children’s frustration. But enough to set them free?

Thailand: What has hair got to do with children’s rights?“, by Kaewmala/Siam Voices, Asian Correspondent, January 13, 2013

The aforementioned New York Times article also highlights another campaign to modernize education:

Late last year, a freethinking Thai high school student, Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan, who goes by the nickname Frank, started a Facebook campaign calling for the abolition of the “mechanistic” education system. Together with like-minded friends, he started a group called the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance. He rose to national prominence in January after speaking out on a prime-time television program.

“School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” he said one recent morning at his school, Nawaminthrachinuthit Triam Udomsuksa Pattanakarn, (…) Frank described the teachers there as “dictators” who order students to “bow, bow, bow” and never to contradict them.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed there is now growing resistance to the status quo in the classrooms and, surprisingly enough, has found an unlikely ally in current Education Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana – at least to the New York Times reporter. But at least a few changes are being implemented: aside from the hair cuts, the number of school hours will be shaved off from 1,000-1,200 to 800 hours per year, in line with UNESCO recommendations.

But there needs to be a lot more to be done – like the lacking reading culture despite Bangkok being named World Book Capital 2013, the problem of corruption for school admissions while also planning to close down smaller schools or also the abusive culture of rite-of-passage rituals among first-year university students – all these and much more need a fundamental thorough overhaul not only to the curriculum, but also to the attitude towards teaching and preparing our children for the future to lead and not to follow.