Microcosm of Everything Wrong

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The Thai Education Minister’s meeting with the North Korean Ambassador is a microcosm of everything wrong with the Thai educational system.

Last month, the Thai Minister of Education, Police General Permpoon Chidchob, met with Ambassador Kim Je Bong of North Korea. During this meeting, the Minister praised North Korea as a model for instilling discipline, patriotism, and respect for leadership—a model Thailand could emulate.

The fact that this courtesy call occurred with an international pariah deserves scrutiny. More importantly, the meeting underscores longstanding issues within the Thai education system. So-called values of discipline, patriotism, and respect for leadership, whether in Thailand or North Korea, essentially mask how authoritarianism is manifested in the schooling system. In Thailand, this translates into a curriculum where repetition is rewarded over comprehension and conformity is encouraged over creativity and critical thinking.

This meeting came at a low point for the Thai education system, which is in disarray. The Thai curriculum has not been revised in the last two decades. Last year, Thai students ranked 51st out of 81 in standardized tests for math and sciences, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Additionally, Thailand scored the lowest in ASEAN and placed 101st out of 113 countries in the English Proficiency Index 2023. Poor testing standards are compounded by instances of teacher violence and abuse in schools, with a recent case involving a teacher at a Samut Prakan school accused of piercing more than two dozen students’ lips with a pin.

These problems are neither new nor obscure. Yet, the fact that the Education Minister praised the North Korean Envoy reflects not only a disregard for the glaring issues but also a willingness to maintain the status quo. It also indicates the type of thinking that prevails at the highest government levels, and by extension, the current administration’s reluctance to tackle education reforms in Thailand seriously. This neglects the needs of thousands of young people in schools and colleges across the country who are calling for reform, the parents and families of children enduring the trauma of school abuse, and the fresh graduates who are ill-equipped and underprepared for an increasingly competitive job market in a global economy.

Therefore, it is crucial that we, as a society, continue to draw attention to these pressing issues. This involves advocating for a shift from traditional educational approaches and attitudes toward fostering free inquiry and analytical thinking. It also means recognizing that when students speak up, they are not rebelling but exercising their legitimate right to influence their education.

These ideas are not radical, yet for Thailand, especially since the student protests four years ago, their realization seems elusive. This may be because they pose a direct challenge to the elites and vested interests or represent an upheaval of the long-cherished values of Thai tradition and culture for many, particularly the older generation. Nonetheless, to fulfill the promise of our future generations, our education system should not be bound by the status quo but should be driven by what ought to be. This means defying old habits and challenging core conventions. As societal attitudes, and hearts and minds, evolve, so too must our approach to education. In the words of the late Whitney Houston, “…believe that the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.”


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