Opinion: Thai education needs reform; we can start with how we teach our history

The recent furor over school haircuts and how teachers have continued to cruelly enforce them even after clear directives from the Ministry of Education has put the authoritarian culture underpinning Thai education into stark focus. 

But it is also common knowledge that the problems facing Thai schools go beyond the issue of haircuts and uniforms.

Outdated curricula and pedagogy continues to emphasize rote-learning while discouraging critical thinking, lest students dare question their teachers. A recent screenshot that went viral of a slideshow that stated a number of classroom agreements, one of which was stated clearly for the avoidance of doubt: “the teacher is always right.” 

Indeed, what is taught is not to be questioned.

In no class is this belief more apparent, yet also clashes harder with reality, than in social studies classes in which Thai history is taught. Students are told the conventional chronology that Thailand began with the founding of the Sukhothai kingdom, whose power was slowly but inexorably yielded to Ayutthaya, and so on. Event after event is presented, always with the overarching goal of ensuring impressionable students understand the national narrative. 

To control the past is to control the future: a cliché, to be sure, but one too relevant not to state. How Thailand has chosen to craft the history taught to generation after generation of students is an intentional act aimed at instilling national pride. But the propagation of narrative as unquestionable fact, while perhaps useful for state-building in the mid-20th century, has lost currency in an era where critical thinking and inquiry have overtaken obedience as the key skills needed to maintain competitiveness. 

The government once talked unceasingly of ‘Thailand 4.0’: the vision for a nation driven by innovation. Of course, this goal is completely at odds with students being taught to uncritically accept and commit to memory the facts in textbooks. In addition, the narratives that history curricula often choose to present do not mesh well with advances in historical study. 

Any change to how history is taught in Thailand would be bound to be controversial. But small, incremental steps can be taken to attain better teaching of history in Thai schools. One area in which schools can begin by identifying areas where the historicity of events are still strongly debated and present contrasting perspectives. 

Take the founding of Ayutthaya, for example. Traditionally, this is dated to 1351, when King U Thong was said to have declared the area as his capital city. Thai textbooks will sometimes note that there may already have been a settlement in this area prior to the city’s recorded foundation, but little detail will be given beyond that. 

We do not have to doubt that a King U Thong existed, or that he played a significant role in the development of the city, but the notion that Ayutthaya was a kingdom that lasted 417 years beginning from 1351 is almost certainly inaccurate. Archaeological evidence, for example, reveals that many of Ayutthaya’s sites predated the supposed founding of the city. 

And while no contemporary records of Ayutthaya’s “founding” have survived, foreign sources also lend support to the belief that Ayutthaya did not become a city in the mid-14th century. As Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit note in their 2017 book, A History of Ayutthaya, Chinese records refer to a city named Xian — which Baker and Pongpaichit believe is most likely to be the city of Ayutthaya — as early as the 1280s, which probably began as an offshoot of Lavo (Lopburi). 

The Chinese chronicles note that in 1292, Xian sent its first mission to China. They discuss how Xian was a maritime power, constantly raiding down the peninsula. It is even recorded that in 1332, a Xian fleet attacked Temasek (modern-day Singapore), and a local ruler installed by the kingdom was thrown out in 1392. These exploits are seldom, if ever, discussed in Thai history classes.

Such omissions do leave poorer learning opportunities for students. Including them, after all, would allow students to better understand the evolution of the role of early Ayutthaya in the context of regional history. Teachers could use different clues provided by archaeology, foreign and Thai chronicles to impress students with the challenges of conflicting historical sources.

Another area which could lend itself towards these types of discussions would be a greater focus on pre-Sukhothai Thailand. Although history classes and textbooks lend its greatest focus to studying the history of Thailand after the foundation of Sukhothai, conventionally accepted as the first Thai kingdom, the Ministry of Education’s curriculum guidelines also prescribes the teaching of “ancient states in Thailand, including Srivijaya, Tambralinga, and Dvaravati.”

It would be misguided, however, to imagine that awareness or understanding of these ancient states are anywhere near common for Thais. 

A student does homework in the canteen of a high school in the Chinatown area of Bangkok on June 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP)

Yet a greater focus on what existed in Thailand before the advent of the earliest Thai states would also lend itself to interesting avenues of inquiry for students. Why do we know so little about Dvaravati, a period commonly thought to span the 6th to 11th centuries? Why are historians unable to even definitively conclude whether it was a vast empire that spanned the Chao Phraya basin, a city-state or even just a culture? 

This would again allow students to analyze history from different types of sources, from the records of the Chinese monk Xuanzhang which noted the existence of a state named Tolopoti, to a numismatics crash course, looking at coins containing Sanskrit words stating “the merit of the king of Sri Dvaravati.” Students could even use the information gleaned from these sources to debate and conclude for themselves what Dvaravati really was.

There are several other issues in Thai history that can be taught in ways that encourage critical thinking. Why, for example, was the Ban Phlu Luang dynasty — Ayutthaya’s final — commonly portrayed in a negative light by chronicles, yet turned out to be the kingdom’s longest-lasting? What was the interplay between Sukhothai and Ayutthaya as power transitioned between north to south?

Again, the first small steps need not spark the ire of cultural conservatives, and the examples that are used here were specifically chosen because they would be unlikely to spark much controversy. (Although of course, merely allowing students to appreciate that historical “truths” can be contested, even ones written in textbooks or taught by teachers, could be a step too far for some!)

Yet it is beyond clear that even these incremental steps are badly needed to take Thailand towards teaching history in a way that deepens critical thinking. As Thailand continues to debate the problems surrounding school haircuts and uniforms, it would be a good opportunity to discuss the issues facing its curricula as well. 

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