Students deserve respect, not scorn
The political situation in past weeks attests to the fact that the country is in need of educational reform as a clash of ideas between the younger generation and those phuyai has intensified.
Student activists put educational reform on their agenda, in addition to political reform, during the Aug 16 rally at the Democracy Monument.
There has been a lack of progress in education reform since the 2014 coup because the military regime under army-chief-turned-premier Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha gave priority to peace and order through crackdowns on political opponents, several of them being university students.
We are effectively trapped in the same situation even though we have had a civilian government since the 2019 election. Pro-government MPs and senators seem to give much weight to protecting Gen Prayut and his military clique, not to the public interest.
Under such unhealthy politics, students are at a loss. They are forced to study under traditional outdated teaching methods while teachers are obsessed with power, refusing to accept a student's identity and needs. The case in point is hairstyle.
The rally at the Democracy Monument seems to have given school students courage. Now, a large number of young students feel the urge to speak out inside the school boundary which in normal circumstances is "a phantom zone", where teachers have the liberty to suppress the rights of students.
Now school students across the country phenomenally flash a three-finger salute, a gesture adopted from The Hunger Games, that signifies a challenge to state power during the morning national flag-raising ceremony.
Not many teachers can accept that. A video clip shows a teacher scorning students, branding their action as "an act of dishonour that taints their school's reputation". That teacher also knocked a cellphone from a student's hand, causing it to drop to the ground.
Another clip shows a school director in Khon Kaen who tried to abort an after-school campaign by a group of students. One student tweeted that police, believed to have been called by the director, visited the school and seized the students' white ribbons that signify peaceful protests against the government.
Such scenes reflect problems in the Thai education system that has reproduced a traditional image of Thai youth -- obedient imbeciles without inquisitive minds. A good student must be someone who thinks inside the box, leaving politics to phuyai.
This is a remnant of Thai politics from the old days; when education served the rulers' needs (by producing loyal bureaucrats in the 19th century) and the state economic policy (by producing passive factory workers in the 1980s). It dwells on the old values (like how to be a decent citizen). Teachers are happy with rote learning; there is no place for creative ideas. This is an education system that fails to adapt to the new world. Such a learning system has undermined students' potential, and competitiveness. Take a look at Thai students' Pisa scores which are consistently performing below the international average in core subjects.
And the system has arguably failed to produce quality manpower. It's estimated that more than 500,000 new graduates will have no jobs this year. Not because of limited job positions, but because their skills do not match current market needs that require workers to be critical, skilful in management, and dare to take up challenges.
There's an ongoing debate, which is also joined by students, about how Thai education can be improved. Many look at the model of the Finnish education system that promotes child-centred methods, inclusiveness, and teacher competency.
Finnish schools are given autonomy to design the teaching methods and classes that fit students' needs. Their system embraces a relaxing atmosphere between students and teachers which in the end attributes to good learning results. Many have an aspiration on how Thailand can achieve a model of Scandinavian welfare, where everyone can access free quality education regardless of their financial status.
Of course, it's not easy for Thailand to follow the Scandinavian system, not because of inefficient tax collection, but also rampant corruption rates and a weak democratic system. But I am glad that some students have started to question the system. We should admire those students who dare think out of the box and rebel against the archaic system.
While students are enthusiastic about changes and challenges, our leaders still cling to their comfort zones. A product of the old education system, the leaders have no dreams, nor do they think big. They have no political will to bring about changes.
While delivering an opening speech at the Thailand Education and Eco System forum held by the Education Ministry on Monday, Gen Prayut ruled out making "Thai education like that of Finland" because "now is not the time".
In his opinion, Thailand still has other priorities. Such a statement indicates education reform is not an urgent matter for the country. If we have to fix the system, he said, all must be done under existing regulations.
Our politicians do not believe in youth power and some believe that protesting students cannot think for themselves. Sayan Yuttitham, Palang Pracharath Party MP from Nakhon Si Thammarat, are among those politicians. When asked about the Sunday rally, he blasted that someone must be pulling the strings. When he was at their age, the politician said he was mainly in the ricefield, "ploughing the land with a buffalo", with no interest in politics.
Both men are the product of the old education system that discourage progressive thinking. Gen Prayut, with his military background, is an extreme case because he was trained in a system that bars subordinates or students from questioning supervisors or teachers, and nor can they challenge the tradition. That's why young students are not impressed with his old-style of leadership and they want just him out.
In order to contain the conflicts between the generations, the leaders should calm down, open their minds and listen carefully to the students' calls. Surely, Gen Prayut and other phuyai are uneasy with education reform that produces students who are different from them. But their old traditions are not compatible with the new world, and education reform is inevitable.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.