Ken May

Where it all came from

A short history of Thai education


My thin marker pen squeaked loudly like a wounded mouse. Its blue blood bled across the white board; forming words and phrases like “change”, “rage”, and “rite of passage”. The university’s new semester had begun, and I was trying to create student interest in a class called Human Behavior and Self-Development. My blue marker pen froze beneath the word “change” as I underlined it. I was distracted by a breeze from an air conditioner and turned around. A television docilely slept like a classroom pet in the corner of the room. Computers wheezed to life in the hallway outside. Female students lined their desks with talking dictionaries, mobile phones, and Xeroxed textbooks. Shapely uniforms caught my eye. I had to consider the obvious: this change was evident all over our classroom. This was certainly a different educational environment than my students’ parents had experienced. I started wondering how all of this development came to pass. And after class, this is what I found out:

The Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767) – The basic structure of education was divided into two types of schools: 1) The royal institute of instruction (Rajabundit) provided education to the sons of kings and noble families; and 2) Buddhist monks supplied education to commoners in temple schools (wats). The latter focused almost exclusively on religious education for males preparing to enter monkhood (sangha). Students would learn about Buddha’s teachings, as well as sacred languages such as Pali and Sanskrit. Although it was rare, a few wats also provided instruction in art, science, medicine, and astrology. The teaching methods were mostly informal and unstructured. Lecture and recitation were the norm. Students would come whenever they had spare time. Monks would teach individuals whatever topic they felt appropriate that day. There wasn’t a set time schedule or grading procedure, which is perhaps why students are still flippant about punctuality and test scores today. One important educational achievement during the Ayutthaya period was the creation of the first textbook of the Thai language, the Chindamani, which was designed during King Narai’s reign. The first Thai alphabet was developed earlier by King Ramkamhaeng during the Sukhothai period (1238-1378).

Thai temple schools appealed to those seeking spiritual knowledge rather than social mobility. These schools did not teach any sort of occupational training. People either inherited their trade from family members or acquired skills through apprenticeship. Since women were not allowed to become monks they were rarely educated. Many of the commoner males also lacked education, because they were required instead to provide unpaid corvee labor for the royal family and nobility. At most, they experienced basic primary school at the rudimentary level. Even some of these male slaves were permitted a limited degree of education in the monasteries. Chinese residents were exempt from slave labor. Therefore, they created their own schools for instruction.
The English language welded no great significance during the Ayutthaya period. Portuguese was the lingua franca among foreign traders at the time. The Portuguese were the first Europeans in Siam. They were given land to settle on and permitted to marry local women. Therefore, the Portuguese language had been well established in Ayutthaya before other Europeans arrived. In addition, the English lot who came here, to put it kindly, weren’t exactly of the stock that would have made good teachers. They drank profusely, chased after Siamese women, falsified their accounting records, and ran their factory into bankruptcy three times. They sometimes borrowed money from King Narai and struggled to pay off this debt afterward. Two English privateers, Richard Burnaby and Samuel White, bordered on piracy. Other Pommies joined Constance Phaulkon as his personal bodyguards, then attempted to massacre local Muslims. Ultimately, 60 Englishmen were killed in Mergui, and King Narai later declared war on the English East India Company. The English were beaten into retreat. Needless to say, the English language never really kicked off in Siam. It wasn’t until the reign of King Chulalongkorn that English became a desirable language.

The King Chulalongkorn Period (1868-1910) – The modernization of education in Thailand began slightly more than 100 years after the fall of the Ayutthaya Empire. The Bowring Treaty (1855) opened Siam to foreign trade, allowing England to export rice to India and China. British subjects were allowed to reside in Siam, including Christian missionaries who opened up religious schools. Similar treaties were signed with the United States and other countries shortly afterward. English became the new lingua franca for trade despite the fact that few Siamese could speak it. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) recognized the need for modern education as well as English skills. All this new trade required a large supply of civil servants, and modern schools could provide the necessary training. Furthermore, King Chulalongkorn believed that standardized education could lead to national unity.
King Chulalongkorn opened up a palace school in 1871, which was the first modern style school in Thailand. It had its own buildings, lay teachers, and set classroom schedules. Shortly afterward, he opened an English school to prepare most of his sons and nephews for studies abroad [note: he had 77 children and a large number of grandsons in need of schooling]. During the 1880s, attempts were made to shift Siam’s educational policies. Free government textbooks were designed and printed, standard syllabi were created for coursework, salaries were increased for lay teachers, alms were given to monk teachers, and rewards were given for passing government exams. King Chulalongkorn created the Department of Public Instruction, which was formally recognized as the Ministry of Education by the 1890s. Despite his remarkable efforts to modernize, it would take decades before all these objectives would take effect.

King Chulalongkorn’s progressive educational policies met with a great deal of political resistance. The sons of noble families traditionally received jobs through family connections. They did not see the need to seek new qualifications. The training of new civil servants, no matter how efficient, interfered with their privileged entitlements. Naturally, the old nobility considered these educational reforms a threat to their social status. However, other important social factors were at hand. The Chinese population was surging. Estimates suggest that there were 230,000 Chinese living in Siam in 1825, but this amount had more than tripled to 792,000 by 1910. The Chinese had already taken on a powerful role in banking, agriculture, canal digging, warehousing, and retail trade. They thrived on the rice trade that the Bowring Treaty allowed, and the Siamese worried about the impact this would have on them. King Chulalongkorn hoped that the new educational policies would help the Chinese to assimilate while encouraging the Siamese to compete with improved skills. Furthermore, there was the usual political tension in the southern provinces. The people on the Southern Peninsula spoke a language that was different than the Siamese of Bangkok, and many were Muslim rather than Buddhist. The new education program stressed Bangkok-Thai as its unifying language. Finally, the rural provinces, where the majority of the Siamese lived, were somewhat detached politically from Bangkok. Rural commoners lacked the desire for modern education and were quite happy with traditional temple schools. Therefore, King Chulalongkorn had to persuade village headmen and monks to allow children to attend school.

King Chulalongkorn enlisted the help of two sons to overcome these difficulties. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab (1862-1943) overhauled the provincial administrative systems after much effort. He advocated modern education to older officials and encouraged them to send their sons to Bangkok schools. He wanted to train them for the civil servant position required for modernization: postal workers, police officers, accountants, typists, and administrators. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab felt that the traditional methods for education rushed students through school directly into bureaucratic positions. He founded the Suankulap school to provide better skills to the Thai nobility and elite. Boys and girls studied together until age seven, and then they were separated. Males studied Buddhism and topics such as politics; women learned domestic subjects including music and morality.
His brother, Prince Wachirayan Warorot (1860-1921) was also a major advocate of education. Prince Wachirayan Warorot headed a reformist sect of Buddhism, called Dhammayutika, and later became the Supreme Patriarch. He was very popular throughout the countryside and impoverished regions. In this respected position he was able to make headway with village monasteries. Prince Wachirayan Warorot was able to introduce standardized syllabi and textbooks, written in Bangkok-Thai, to temple schools.

Mathematics and science were included into the curricula in addition to Buddhist teachings. At first, only boys were allowed to attend these village schools, but after the turn of the century some girls could also start enrolling. Prince Wachirayan Warorot wanted to integrate the provinces for national unity. He srtuggled to create ties with the provinces, partially due to worries about Chinese technical and economic dominance. He also sought unity by balancing modern Thai education system with the traditional role of monks as teachers. This initial step was a prerequisite before greater educational change could take place in the agriculturally based countryside.

King Chulalongkorn is highly revered today for his advocacy of modern education. However, he did much more than that. Between 1899-1905, King Chulalongkorn was able to abolish the old system of slavery. This made it more possible for commoners to seek education even at the secondary level. Since young Siamese were not forced into unpaid couvee labor they had more free time to study if they could afford it. He also helped open the first government schools for girls. For the first time girls had some limited access to education, although it was usually the daughters of elite who took advantage of the opportunity.

Modern education still had a long way to go. Schooling was not compulsory or universal. It took until the 1920s to make four years of primary school mandatory for both boys and girls. Most commoners didn’t have access to anything beyond the rudimentary primary level, and limited resources were Bangkok-centered. Libraries were rare and little stocked. It took a few decades for teacher to be trained and for students to graduate to the upper levels. A government university didn’t exist until around 1916, when one was established under Chualongkorn’s name. However, by the 1920s and 1930s, most provincial centers did have a college of some sorts. A new crop of teachers were graduating to educate the next generation. The foundation for modern education had formed. English instruction was still very limited though. It was mostly learned by the royal family and nobility. Foreign language teachers were nearly non-existent outside of Bangkok. But a scattering of English schools were born that served as mortar to build a modern future.

The First English Schools (1872-1900) – The English language had a very minor presence prior to King Chulalongkorn’s reign. However, there were some missionary schools in existence (ie. Assumption College). A few Siamese elite also studied with American or British tutors – such as Anna Leonowens, who provided English lessons during the 1860s and inspired bad musicals a century later. The first government schools to formally experiment with English instruction were created near the end of the century. A brief examination of them might shine light on the situation today:

1) The Palace English School (1872) – In 1870, a school was founded for the education of the royal family and nobility. Instructions were conducted in Thai behind palace walls for the Royal Pages’ Bodyguard Regiment. An Englishman, Francis George Patterson, was hired as an instructor for 150 students, and this evolved into the Palace English school in 1872. Thai students responded to this school in hopes of earning the King’s rewards. However, enrollment dropped when these favors appeared to not be immediately forthcoming. By 1875, only three students were left, and these were all the King’s younger brothers. The English program was shut down. The Palace Thai school continued to exist into the 1880s, which was long enough to print textbooks. Education was provided by monks. The important change was that this school taught students in groups for the first time, rather than in the traditional practice of individual instruction (And, no, I don’t think they presented group reports about Thai fruit or played games such as hangman).

2) Suan Anand (1879) – Once the Palace English School failed there was a void in English programs. Eventually, an ambitious replacement school was designed to provide Thai-English instruction at the secondary level. An American headmaster, Samuel McFarland, was hired for a five-year contract (at a salary of 6,400 baht). McFarland had been involved with missionary work in Siam since the 1860s. He hired several other Americans as teachers. Scholarships went to many of the male royals and noble elite students, so in the first year more than 100 students enrolled. Courses included English, astronomy, history, physics, geography, and military science. Pupils learned to make speeches and stage debates. Although Suan Anand proved very successful in its early stages the school was rapidly failing. Suan Anand’s curricula and teaching methods were considered too radical and western for the times. It was also located in the undesirable Thonburi side of the river. More importantly, McFarland promoted an open enrollment policy that allowed Chinese and commoners to study. Despite substantial tuition costs, the sons of Chinese merchant families flocked to sign up. The old nobility did not like to study with, or compete against, the industrious Chinese. Nobility started dropping out and enrolling in a competitor school (Suankulap), which was started by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab. In 1883, only seven students graduated out of the starting class, so Suan Anand was closed during same year. Eventually it reopened and changed its name.

3) Suankulap School (1881) – Thai officials were slow to accept the need to revamp skills for better postal service, engineering projects, accounting practices, and foreign language usage. Old nobility tended to inherit these positions regardless of ability. King Chulalongkorn desired a solid political base that could stand against the old nobility. Therefore, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab developed a new palace school for the Royal Pages’ Bodyguard Regiment that would take upper-class students to the secondary level. These students would become a skilled force of civil servants for the modern age. This school emphasized western methodologies. Buddhist teachings were downplayed to make room for courses like math and geography. English was also added to the curricula and British teachers were hired. One of its English instructors, Baboo Ramsamy Pultar, was hired as a non-native speaker from Calcutta (maybe he worked for cheaper). Over 100 students enrolled in the second year of Suankulap. The school retained an upper class character. A twenty baht tuition fee was charged to keep commoners out. The majority of students were of royal lineage, who were given privileged positions in government service after training.

4) Suanthalai (1890) – Suanthalai was founded on the remnants of the failed school called Suan Anand. In fact, Samuel McFarland also established the seedlings for this new school, which he stocked with American teachers. McFarland successfully petitioned to have the former school moved away from Thonburi to the Bangkok side of Chao Phraya River. This new institute was relocated to the abandoned buildings of a former girls’ school. Enrollment tripled after the move. In 1891, the Siamese government proclaimed a new English curriculum and standards for exams, which enabled it to have more control over education than before. Students were expected to wait under secondary level to study English. Despite this setback, Suanthalai’s reputation inspired over 200 students to enroll by 1892. Unfortunately, McFarland was dismissed the same year even with this success. Due to complicated budget struggles the right to use the Suanthalai buildings was revoked; taking away with it the large financial endowment that McFarland had built up. A Thai headmaster was placed in charge instead of a westerner. All of the foreign teachers were transferred elsewhere by 1893. McFarland was forced to accept a different job as a textbook designer at a major cut to his salary. He died shortly thereafter.

5) Ban Phraya Nana (1893) – Ban Phraya Nana evolved out of the corpse of Suanthalai. The new Thai headmaster, Kon Amatyakul, spoke fluent English. He inherited a school with over 200 students, but with major budgetary constraints and a lack of foreign teachers. There isn’t much known about this school. However, some documents do exist. A Thai prince inspected this school while classes were studying grammar, reading, Thai composition, and Thai history. The Prince decided that the students did not study Thai proficiently enough to pass government primary exams. They were poor on grammar, but did well in math. Overall, the Prince felt that the students had nice discipline and that this school was still better than others. Nevertheless, enrollment declined anyway. Students preferred to study English at different Bangkok schools. Many Thai’s turned to missionary institutes, such as Assumption College and the Bangkok Christian Boys High School, for English skills. Each year, only a small group of Ban Phraya Nana students managed to pass the exams. The school was finally closed in 1903.
6) King’s College (1897) – The King’s College was established to prepare elite students for study abroad with the English language. It was structured like an English boarding school. Teachers earned a salary of 20 baht per month. Large tuition fees were charged to prevent non-elites from enrolling. The government heavily subsidized this school, and King Chulalongkorn gave many scholarships to those attending. [Note: The King’s College in operation today bears no historic connection to its predecessor, except for a shared name and perhaps the low salary].

7) Civil Service School (1900) – This school was founded to train lesser nobility for provincial administration. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab wished to integrate lower level officials with the noble elite for the sake of national unity. The school helped coordinate rural officials with Bangkok’s central government. Commoners could gain access to civil servant employment through this school. Over 180 students enrolled in its first year. This educational system was eventually adopted in Ayutthaya, the province where I presently live. Ayutthaya become the provincial center in 1894, which connected to administrative offices in Bangkok. By the turn of the century, parents sent children to Ayutthaya for their education – from as far away as Lopburi, Suphanburi, and Anthong – where they were trained to work in courthouses, post offices, police stations, hospitals, and tax departments. The top students were given scholarships to study at the advanced level in Bangkok. These Bangkok-trained authorities, in turn, where threaded back to region leading to solidarity. This educational structure rippled toward my students decades afterward.

Farangs: Attack of the Zombies (1950s-Present) – To Thailand’s fortune, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has always placed a high priority on education. He was educated in Switzerland and the United States and was active in advancing modern schools in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej often toured the provinces, promoted development projects, and personally handed out university degrees. With his support the number of secondary schools increased by 63% between 1958 and 1962, and the production of new teachers lifted 78%. New vocational schools were created in the countryside during the 1960s, and regional universities opened up in Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen. By the end of the 1960s, the Private College Act was passed to permit the foundation of private collages, compulsory education was extended to seven years, and women made significant gains in education. This growth, in part, was also due to a massive injection of foreign aid by the United States. Thailand was the recipient of approximately $507 million in economic assistance and $660 million in military aid between 1951-1967, and this money continued to pour in during the following decade with the Vietnam War.

The 1970s were a decade of social change in Thailand. Civil servant positions were getting filled, but new types of industries opened up. Factories and tourism became new revenue generators. A new middle class started to form and take voice. The country was becoming more urbanized, too, due to massive migration to larger cities. Urban families were having fewer children, which reduced pressure on primary schools and allowed greater funding at the secondary level. This enabled Thailand to increase its education to a 6-3-3 format: six years of compulsory primary school (pratom suksa), three years of mandatory secondary school (mattayom dton), and three years of high school (mattayom plai). Some institutes have added pre-school and kindergarten (anubahn). Unfortunately, the legal age limit for dropping-out of school is unclear. My resources are contradictory, and it appears that exceptions can be made if the child is poor or living in the countryside. I don’t really know for sure. [Note: I have also been told that there are exceptions to this 6-3-3 rule, especially at private schools]. The Ministry of Education experimented with new English programs during the 70s. It made English a mandatory topic of study. However, there is still debate whether English classes should begin at the primary or secondary level.

Thailand’s education was no longer reserved for royalty and old nobility. All Thais were learning in schools and expanding global knowledge with media such as television and radio. To put this growth into perspective: slightly more than 1 million Thais finished primary school in 1937, but this rate had increased to 26.7 million in 1980; 13,000 Thais finished secondary school in 1937 and nearly 3.5 million did so in 1980; and only 5,000 Thais had any education at the university level in 1937, which expanded to 868,000 by 1980. The increasing access to education in the 70s, however, also brought about social unrest. Thai students were attending university like never before. Enrollment nearly double from the previous decade, which gave rise to a new political consciousness. In October, 1973, students joined together to launch pro-democracy demonstrations that were nearly a half-million strong. Another protest, on October 6th, 1976, resulted in a large number of protesters getting murdered by supporters of the right-wing military dictatorship at that time. It is almost as if the old nobility were trying to control the new political development of commoners.

Thailand’s new educational structure reflected the influence of the U.S. system. This should be to no surprise, the enormous presence of U.S. soldiers gave rise to a competitive need to learn English, and U.S. dollars helped finance economic growth. America also sent a significant number Peace Corps volunteers to Thailand as teachers and developers. A few Peace Corps alumni are widely known expatriates today: Joseph Cummings writes for the Lonely Planet guidebooks from his home in Chiang Mai; Steve Van Beek penned a number of books about Thailand’s rivers and artwork; and James Eckhart, a very prolific humor writer, has single handedly doubled the population of Phitsanulok with his offspring. The demand for English was stronger than ever, but there was still a major shortage of native speaking teachers. Despite this U.S. earlier influence, most students still learnt English from older Thai teachers – repeating the exact same grammar mistakes that their elders made. The old teaching methods were like dragging a broken-wheeled wagon across quicksand. The English language just didn’t go anywhere. Unfortunately, this same pattern of mimicry (hear, recite, transliterate) was replicated across the globe.

Then, in the 1980s, something strange started happening. It all started when a green meteorite struck Asia, and space aliens spilled out to discover that they could feast on human brains. It was something like that at least. English solidified as the language of global trade. All of a sudden, the TEFL industry multiplied and spread. In the same decade, tourism became Thailand’s leading earner of foreign exchange. Five million tourists arrived in 1987 alone, and they weren’t speaking Swahili. Anybody with limited English skills could prosper from the emerging tourist industry. However, there was still a major gap between local demand and those able to supply reasonable English skills. A small trickle of adventurous native speakers started to filter into Thailand. Many came as tourists, missionaries, or soldiers; falling into teaching positions by mistake. Some were snatched alive into the seductive mouths of local Venus fly traps and still haven’t escaped. A few sought out scarce language schools or profited from private lessons. Others figured out how to operate websites. This sordid, drooling, and debauched bunch slapped on the nearest tie and found a job. If they scraped the dirt from beneath their fingernails they could call themselves a professional. However, in a different part of Asia new batches of space-alien-zombies were quickening.

The Japanese economy thrived during the 1980s. Japan rose like a blossoming sun to enjoy the world’s second largest economy, due to innovative production of electronic and automotive goods. Like Thailand, Japan felt a strong need to find English teachers. But Japan had the one thing that Thailand lacked: money for high salaries. The Japanese Exchange Teacher (JET) program was developed in 1987 to bring foreign teachers into their country. It is perhaps the world’s first comprehensive program to attract English teachers on a large scale. Japanese companies also offered lucrative salaries to encourage foreign teachers to relocate. Before long, profiteers realized that big money could be made with the English language. The EFL industry incubated in Japan throughout the decade. This new being could not be contained for long. Soon enough, Japan ejected this rapidly mutating demon-child from its womb. The purple-headed infant wiggled and squirmed like wet sushi on the ground. Eventually, somebody named it “Teaching English as Foreign Language”, but this name was never agreed upon by both parents. They still argue about it today. The little sprat grew so rapidly that nobody knew exactly how to take care of it.

The EFL industry ignited like brushfire in the 1990s. The four Asian tigers (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea) were hungry for Japan’s success. All of them made pheromone-beckoning attempts to draw English teachers to their countries. South Korea was the slowest to flinch. It had declared all private language schools (hogwons) illegal between 1981-1989, ultimately driving up the price. Korea changed this education policy in fear of the inflating power of their age old enemy across the pond. By the mid-1990s, South Korea was the hot spot for English teachers. South Korea started to offer competitive salaries and paid housing to lure the fish onto the hook. Before long, former Communist countries threw their gloves into the economic ring. This was how I got sucked in. My first teaching job was at a teacher training college in Hungary in 1997, which I found by word-of-mouth. The European Union and Euro Dollars weren’t even zygotes yet, and border crossing was still a test in endurance. Soon I tired of my $250 monthly salary and flew to South Korea to cash in on experience. It was too bad for me that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 had arrived first, but that is another story.

The EFL industry, as we know it, didn’t really snap in Thailand until around 1998-2003. It was a late bloomer. Thailand lagged behind other Asian countries in terms of educational infrastructure. Low teacher salaries also slowed the growth of English programs that could provide native speakers. Therefore, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej took an active interest in improving higher education. He laid some of the foundation for the EFL industry’s local growth. Every Thai teacher training college was renamed as a Rajabhat Institute in 1992. The International Studies Center, where I presently teach, was established in 1995 with the goal of English-only instruction. Likewise, English programs were encouraged at the Rajabhat/university level across Thailand. The Rajabhat Institutes Act (1996) approved these institutes for regional development, codified legal standards, set regulations for distributing degrees, and granted Rajabhat schools the equivalent status of universities. The number of women seeking advanced education surpassed the total of men in the 1990s. These females were more likely to study English at Rajabhat schools. Demand for English increased, so sometimes budget money was used to hire foreign teachers. Finally, Thailand’s economy began to recover from the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The low cost of living attracted many foreign visitors, who would later join the pool of teachers – including myself. The tourism industry boomed so rapidly that 10 million tourists came to Thailand in 2002. It is also to my belief that a wave of teachers came to Thailand after the financial crisis, since they no longer trusted the Korean private schools that had cheated them.

Behind the scene, during the 1990s, important innovations permanently altered the face of the EFL industry. One of them was the proliferation of certificate producing agencies. The RSA was the only recognized teacher certificate available in the 80s, which was taken over by Cambridge and redesigned as CELTA in 1996. In Thailand, Text-and-Talk started as a language school in 1991 before issuing its Ministry of Education endorsed teaching certificates. TEFL International started handing out certificates like travel coupons back in 1998. Now, local certification agencies have splintered into so many directions that I can’t even keep track anymore. Many of these certificate agencies now provide recruitment services. They can place program graduates directly into language schools, sometimes earning a fee or a kickback for their effort. In the last decade there has been a plethora of new private language schools and recruitment agencies across Thailand. One can practically throw a paper airplane made out of a resume and find a teaching job. That person may not be able to teach and that school may be dodgy as a Nigerian lottery, but the jobs are here for almost anybody that wants one. Newbies need not fear, the good jobs have not all been taken and the bandwagon is still rolling along.

The Internet is perhaps the greatest catalyst of all behind the emerging EFL industry. Potential teachers can easily find jobs on-line, schools may post advertisements, and expatriates can exchange tips and advice (or just drive each other crazy with trolling). EFL websites are a burgeoning field yielding money-making harvests. However, these tools are also in an infancy stage. Teaching websites are barely one decade old, and nobody alive knows what direction they will take in the future. The first major website for teaching jobs (www.eslcafe.com) kicked off in 1995. It was American based and operated by a Yankee with a fetish for berets. Thailand’s first website for teachers (www.ajarn.com) rolled off the screen in 1998 when a couple of Brits ran out of beer and needed something better to do. English teachers can also find numerous websites and chat boards for Taiwan, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. If you look real hard, I am sure you can find teaching websites for Kyrgyzstan and the Republic of Tuva, too. And if not, these might be good places to relocate to in advance for the next boom in the industry.

My point of this entire article is this: Thailand’s education system did not come out of nowhere. It was a long and difficult battle. It was a battle by kings to modernize education. It was a battle by elite nobles to preserve privileges. It was a battle by western teachers to wield influence. It was a battle by Siamese official to retain control over western infiltration. It was a battle between the Siamese and Chinese residents to obtain economic advantage. It was a battle for commoners to lift themselves higher. It was a battle for girls to gain access to even the most basic education. It was a battle by Bangkok to bring provinces into their grasp. It was a battle between traditional temple schools and new government programs. It was a battle by university students to share political voice. It was a battle by expatriates to get accepted within this curious nation. Finally, it was a battle just to acquire the luxury of the English language. And we teachers need to be thankful, because we are all a part of that struggle.
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…. Back to School – The blue ink was drying in the center of the blackboard. I let my students gaze at the word to feel its meaning. “Change”, they had already written a paper about it. They wrote one page about three things that they want to change: a change in themselves, a change about Thailand, and a change of opinion. Now, I wanted them to appreciate the changes that made their education possible. Many of them were the first in their family to go to college. They have no predecessors to refer to about proper university behavior. Most of their parent’s lacked the formal training to help them with studies. Thailand still suffers from an educational lag between generations. I wanted my students to appreciate this opportunity to learn. Their parents and grandparents did not share the same luxuries. Therefore, I asked each student to interview an older family member about the past. I provided them with a list of 15 question. The responses gathered should illustrate my above article with a more human voice. This is what my students came up with:

1) My 60 year old aunt finished up to grade 7, which was the highest level for women at the time (1957). She studied math, history, hygiene, and decorum. Since my aunt was a Chinese woman, she was also expected to learn how to sew dresses, cut hair, and cook in school. Her school didn’t have any English programs. My grandmother had no education, because women were expected to concentrate on being a housewife and their household duties. Most building were made of wood, but some walls had bricks. There were seven teachers for 150-200 students. Students bought books at the higher level but borrowed them at the lower level, since they were handed down to new students each year. The government donated pencils and notebooks. The brown notebook had a picture of the king on its cover. The students wore standard uniforms, and both boys and girls were required to have short hair. Naughty students were beat with a stick on their legs, hands, and bottom. Other punishment methods included standing on one foot, stretching out both arms, and holding a ruler in your mouth for 30-60 minutes. Her sister was the first person in her family to attend university, which was at Ramkhamhaeng – the first open university to accept commoners. The earlier teaching methods were recitation, reading, and memorization. She thinks that modern methods should allow students to develop opinions, create ideas, and actually produce something by doing it.

2) My father went to government high school. He studied math, social studies, and the Thai language. His school had a female English teacher who was Thai. His uniform was brown shorts and a short-sleeved white shirt, which was a hand-me-down from his older brother. The books were made with bad paper, so they kept falling about. There were no air conditioners, overhead projectors, or computers. The classroom only had wooden furniture, a blackboard, and some chalk. Boys studied at a higher level than girls, since they were expected to head a family. He was punished with a stick for not doing his homework, so he was very afraid of the teachers. He was the first person in his family to attend university. He studied management at Kasetsart University. Thai education moved slowly, so textbooks were usually outdated. Now, he is impressed by the Thailand’s new libraries and the Internet. In his opinion, students should learn to love learning. They should enjoy the process of understanding.

3) My mother studied at a temple primary school. Her family was poor so she could wear old dresses instead of an uniform. However, she begged to wear an uniform like other girls and disapproves of the short skirts worn by female students today. She says that in the past there were no talking dictionaries, which was better since students learnt spelling quicker if they look it up in a book. People thought that the education of boys was more important, since girls will only become housewives and raise children. Teachers hit students for punishment. She didn’t study English in school, but her sister did at higher levels (from a Thai teacher). Her sister was the first person in her family to attend university. Her sister worked hard at a tiring part time job to pay tuition fees. In the past you could not study if you didn’t have money, but now the government distributes scholarships or offers loans. She believes that the most important thing is not education, but developing your mind. Education only develops brains, but a developed mind makes somebody less selfish and kind.

4) My grandfather studied up to the secondary level. When he was young people studied in the temple. His wat had five teachers and there were seven students per class. Students learned spelling, reading, math, and the Thai language. There were no English teachers because there were no English classes. His two textbooks were called “Jindamanee” and Patomkorka”. He didn’t wear an uniform because he was poor. He wore only shorts and many boys didn’t wear shirts to school. Hungry boys with no money could get lunch from the school’s monks, but girls couldn’t since they weren’t allowed to interact in the same way. Students were punished by rod. When they talked too much or failed to do homework they were hit on the leg in front of class. His brother was the first person to attend university, and he majored in education because he wanted to become a teacher. The family was so proud to have an university graduate in the family. He wants to be a young student again, so that he can learn about computers, high technology, and English. He thinks that Thai schools should bring back the rod for punishment.

5) My mother studied until four years of primary school. She studied at a two-story temple school that was made of wood. Monks were the only teachers. Students went home for lunch, because there was no canteen. Compulsory education lasted only four years. The school didn’t have a blackboard or any paper. Students had a slate that they wrote upon with a type of nail-rock instead of pencils. Towels were used instead of erasers, and the textbook was called “Manee-Manee”. Boys wore brown shorts and a white shirt. Girls wore a blue skirt and a white shirt. Neither of them wore shoes or socks. They went barefoot to school. Boys studied in temples with monks and went to higher levels of school. Girls studied separately and finished after four years of primary school. She studied math and the Thai language. There weren’t any English teachers at all. His daughter [my student] is the first in her family to attend college. She feels that modern students are lucky because they have the Internet and libraries, plus girls can study at the same level as boys. She is proud of me and remembers driving me to the Rajabhat on her first day. She thinks that students should feel pride about going to a Rajabhat.

6) My father studied in a temple primary school, where he also lived as a novice monk. He had to take care of himself, which made him independent and brave. The school didn’t have any technology other than a blackboard and chalk. He learned by studying nature. He could not buy books since he was poor, so this material was handed down from previous students. His uniform was brown shorts, a white shirt, and slippers without socks. Sons learned sports and girls learned cooking. Children didn’t study seriously because they had to work in rice fields and raise animals. The teachers used a cane to hit students on the butt and hands. Sometimes students were punished by making them clean something dirty instead. He studied English during the first year of secondary school from a Thai teacher, however few of his classmates practiced English because they couldn’t understand how it was important for their lives. He was the first person in his family to study at university. He skipped classes often and was lazy, something he regrets today. He is amazed about all the modern teaching tools: the Internet, computers, e-mail, telephones, video players, and VCDs. You had to trust your teacher’s knowledge and the contents of a book, but now you can check information out in other ways. He thinks that universities should teach less general subjects and have more specific topics. He feels that all college education is good. Students shouldn’t feel discouraged for attending a Rajabhat instead of an university with higher status.

7) My father studied at a temple primary school until level four. His family didn’t have any money, so he stayed inside his rural village for education. The old wooden school building had a fan, broken furniture, and only old books. Students used charcoal instead of pencils. At first there wasn’t any uniform, but in the later years he wore the usual brown shorts and white shirt. He said that girls were more determined learners then. Boy played football, fought with friends, and failed to do homework. For punishment students were hit by a cane, forced to stand on one leg, and made to clean toilets. He feels that teachers communicate better with students than in the past. The school didn’t have any type of English program. I am [my student] the first person in his family to attend college. He is very happy to send me to here. Rajabhat students have the power to find good jobs, so they shouldn’t feel bad about the reputation that they can’t qualify for university.

8) My grandmother never went to a government school. She studied at Catholic missionary school 70 years ago instead. Her family was too poor for formal education. They didn’t wear an uniform to church, and their only school supplies included a pencil, a notebook, and the Bible. Girls learned about cooking while boys learned to catch fish with nets. Both learned about the Bible and how to pray. The school had a missionary from Vietnam who taught English. Students were beat by teachers and forced to stand on one leg. Her sister was the first person in her family to attend university. She feels that students should practice more active learning, and that more scholarships should be given to children that don’t have money to learn. She is very proud that six of her students went to college and four became involved with clergy.

9) My father studied until primary school. All the male student in primary school wore the same brown shorts and white shirts. Girls wore a white shirt and a blue skirt. They didn’t wear school-specific uniforms like today. The classroom had a blackboard, chalk, textbooks, and a special corner with comic books. There was a English program with both Thai teachers and a foreigner from Canada. The girls were better at English than the boys who preferred math. Overall, girls weren’t taken as seriously as students although they worked harder and did more homework. Some teachers hit bad children by hand. I am [My student] are the first person in my family to attend college. He feels that education is more wide open for students today. Students can choose subjects that they are interested in, and everybody has a chance to attend school. Scholarships are now offered at universities. Students should act in accordance with university rules and not rebel too much, and beating students should be brought back to install better discipline. The teaching style is more student-centered than ever before, but should be designed more like international schools. He wants to go back to school again to study with all the modern equipment.

10) My neighbor earned a MA degree from a government university in Bangkok. He studied in a big class with 40 other students. The boys studied math, music, Thai history, Thai language, and English. All the English teachers were Thai. Both genders studied together in primary school, but secondary school was only for boys. Students carried around mobile blackboards that they wrote on with chalk. The teaching methods involved lengthy talks by a teacher. Students were never asked questions or allowed to participate. In primary school he was a very bad student. He missed school often to play with friends and was very lazy. Students were beat everyday with a cane. He was hit on the palm of his hand for not doing homework and hit again at home by his parents for getting in trouble.

He was born to a very poor family during World War Two. Poverty in Bangkok was very high then, but due to a post-war baby boom his family had 13 children. His older sister was the first person in his family to attend college. He claims that he never took education seriously until high school. English was a major reason for this change. His first contact with a native speaker was a U.S. Army major who lived next door. He learned English through songs on the radio. His high school also had a few books such as Aesop’s fables. His first western teacher was a Peace Corps member who taught English at university graduate school. The local Rajabhat schools began as teacher training schools for civil servants and were started by our king. The old schools didn’t have libraries, so teachers were the only source of information. Modern schools do more group work than ever before. He believes that today’s students must apply new skills to improve society. They need to learn by doing. Most of all they need to learn to produce. Students must become producers rather than consumers. Some Thai students still think like slaves. They are still too dependent on foreigners. Their only plans after graduation is to work for a western or Japanese company at a local factory. They need to move beyond the past. They need to be more creative and design their own future.

Special thanks to:
Wyatt, David. Studies in Thai History. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999.
Wyatt, David. A Short History of Thailand (2nd ed.). London: Yale University Press, 2003.




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