Teachers can benefit by developing a sensitivity regarding the degree of influence Buddhism has in the daily life of regional Thailand.
Buddhism and Thai Education
Coming from Western countries, where the education system is predominantly secular, we can be acutely unaware of the degree to which Buddhism influences education and wider society. A greater awareness of Buddhism will permit a more accurate reconsideration and realignment in developing pedagogical strategies that are better suited to the regional Thai education system.
In Western culture (particularly in Australia where I come from), secular education is clearly foregrounded, with the church's role in education marginalised to old-fashioned Sunday Schools or Church-run private schools whose programs largely adhere to secular curriculum requirements.
Here in the Esaan province of Buriram the presence of Buddhism is omnipresent. From temples to statues, prayers broadcast on public speakers, amulets, shop photos and monks walking the streets in search of food, Buddhism is everywhere. So as a teacher in a government school I have learnt to appreciate the fact that Buddhism is well and truly part of the school system.
So what does this mean to a foreign English teacher trying to cope with the demands and frustrations that occur in daily school life?
Stay positive and view issues pertaining to Thai education with a broad mind. Balancing your concerns, with a deeper understanding of how Buddhist values reverberate in the local community is the way to go!
West v East
The core issue is a process of displacement. On one hand there is the incoming modern Western influence that promotes an educational system based on creating students who are independent, imaginative and technologically savvy.
They access a curriculum that prepares them for employment in a rapidly advancing global environment. Whilst on the other, the traditional Thai Sangha or monastic controlled education system, emphasises ethics and an appreciation of tradition. Whilst both styles value the importance of morality, there is a perplexing clash in educational philosophy. One must ask what is the better outcome for the students?
The problem with our altering technological world is that our focus in keeping up with the present comes at the expense of losing respect for the past. The pursuit of treasures promised by materialism promotes individualism at the expense of wider community mindedness.
Regardless of what side of the fence you sit, one needs to be cautious about taking a one sided view to this dilemma. The Buddhist approach advises one to contemplate the values of both sides and to plot a pathway that considers the best of both worlds.
Rome Wasn't Built in a Day
Sure, there is little doubt that the Western goals are the preferred outcome for a student, but Thailand is a developing country, and poverty remains a major handicap. Furthermore developing a successful education system is very much like developing a successful democratic system.
History tells us that this process can take several of hundreds of years.
For example the universities of Oxford and Cambridge date their origins at around 1180-1200. Witches were being burnt in Salem and Galileo was burnt at the stake several hundreds of years after England's first universities were born.
Whereas Thailand's first university was not opened until 1917.!!!
Thailand has not been colonised and the immaturity of its bureaucratic infrastructure has affected development of democratic and educational institutions adversely. So the end result is a slowing of the process. Throw in the widespread poverty, superstition and a relatively short history (since 1932) of a military dominated constitutional monarchy, one can see that there are many legitimate reasons for the current weaknesses in the Thai educational system.
So avoid disenchantment with the Thai education system and keep the saying that "Rome wasn't built in a day," firmly in your mind.
The Grip of Tradition
There is little doubt that there is much room for improvement in the Thai education system. According to the latest results published by PISA (comparing the academic levels of students on a country by country basis) Thailand is only ranked 54th. Thailand might not be keeping up in the educational race but are things as grave as the figure suggests?
Thailand is a socially immobile society in many ways. The culture remains steeped in religion and superstition. The established wealth of your family has more credence than individual talent, and the family unit is more important than the individual.
As teachers we face a tough task in our valiant efforts to change the Thai educational system for the better. Becoming upset with the stubborn traditions of Thai culture will only hinder positive change, but dedicated effort in our teaching practice can make each day just a little better for our students.
So whilst there is plenty of room for criticism, let's highlight some positive aspects of Buddhism in Thailand's rural community, so that we teachers can keep perservering to make a valuable contribution to our student's lives.
Upsides of Thai Buddhist Society
The wat serves as a trusted multi-functional community centre in much of regional Thailand, as a place of worship, a playground for children, a neighbourhood meeting place, a centre for rituals and a social support.
The teachings of Buddhism are essentially concerned with creating individuals who are mentally-disciplined and selfless. The Four Noble Truths aim to release an individual from suffering by following at Eightfold Path that nourishes the mind with an emphasis on peace, honesty and compassion
In following Buddhism young people gain a better sense of having respect for their elders than their Western counterparts.
As a result of their exposure to Buddhism, Thai people are able to practice self restraint in daily life manifesting in an outwardly cheerful, tolerant and non-confrontational attitude
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