Today in the Times... Reforming Education in Thailand

Thailand considers reforming its authoritarian educational system.

My dissertation examines how education has been used for authoritarian ends in Morocco, so I read with interest an article this morning in the NYT about Thailand's current conversation over educational reform. The article highlights several significant points:

1. Educational reforms have path dependent effects: changes made to educational curriculum can continue shaping individuals long after the conditions in which those reforms were made have passed.

In the Thai case, educational style is rooted in the military dictatorship established in the country in 1972. The country experienced a period widely viewed as democratic in the mid-2000s, but returned to military dictatorship after the coup d'état of 2006. Its curriculum is deeply rooted in authoritarian values, even as the country's political space opens.

2. Education in authoritarian contexts is distinctly undemocratic: I know this is obvious, but I think the political science literature has done very little to examine this. Sometimes I get the impression some political scientists think any education is better than no education. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

In the Thai case, students are beat with bamboo canes, can have their hair cut or dyed publicly at school if it does not meet rigid dress code standards and the curriculum is rooted in rote memorization. “School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” one student said.

3. Schools are the training grounds for citizenship: again, obvious. But in a system where students are expected to "bow, bow, bow" to their teachers, and never articulate their own arguments nor learn to evaluate others' arguments, how can a democracy function? where else do people learn to be critical?

In Thailand, the new education minister, trained in the US, is interested in moving towards letting students think more independently, though his support seems distressingly conditional. He remarked, "We want them to be individuals, within reason.”

4. You can't always get what you want, and neither can the regime: The Ministry of Education can change the national curriculum, but whether its implemented on the ground depends on its relationship to teachers, principals and other bureaucrats.

In the Thai case, one vice principal interviewed in the article seems likely to ignore reforms if he thinks they are too drastic. He was clear with his views, “The military needs guns; teachers need sticks. Sometimes you need to hit them a little bit, but only on the bottom.”