What is the country’s biggest problem? According to the Nida Poll last week, it’s not politics, the judicial system, the bureaucracy, or economic disparity; it’s education. Who can disagree with that?Count me in.

It is true that our education system has utterly failed to help our kids be competitive in the modern world because it suppresses creative and independent thinking. It is also true that education here needs urgent reform.

But this failure does not stem from the system’s inefficiency. On the contrary, our country is in a rut because the kind of education system we have has been too successful.

It is a misunderstanding that the ultimate goal of education here is academic excellence and innovative thinking. It is not. If that is our expectation, then we will surely be disappointed.

Instead, the goal of our education system is to instil youngsters with a set of cultural values that endorses and perpetuates the existing social and political hierarchy. When inequality is viewed as a non-issue, a normal part of life, the system is not questioned and individuals are left with the challenge of rising above the crowd, which is considered success.

In this respect, the education system here has achieved its ideological aim with flying colours.

Since the crux of the problem is cultural values that legitimise disparity, I don’t think what the poll identifies as urgent measures to reform the system will really work to turn things around.

While the 1,284 respondents to the Nida poll said education is the number one problem that should undergo reform, at the top of their reform list in the field of education is teachers, followed respectively by curriculum, teaching aids, student behaviour and education management.

The poll clearly reflects public anxiety given the country’s persistently poor educational performance in various international tests.

Teachers, curriculum and teaching aids are education tools the public want to improve. But who will do that? The education mandarins in the centralised Education Ministry? How can change be possible when everything — from teacher recruitment, evaluation, down to minute curriculum and textbook content — is remote-controlled from Bangkok and irrelevant to local needs and aspirations? Yet, education management comes last on their reform list.

And if maintaining authoritarian culture and hierarchical social order remains the goal of education, will strengthening the tools of this political ideology of education make it even more resistant to change?

Child prostitution was a serious problem three decades ago. Educate the girls and the problem would go away, was the belief back then. The expansion of universal education succeeded in keeping Thai girls in schools, but the flesh trade industry including child prostitution continues unabated as migrant girls are brought here in massive numbers to satiate local demands.

This is the case because cultural values that see women as sex objects and buying sex as a normal part of manhood are as strong as ever.

What is the education system doing? It continues to endorse sexual segregation and passes on the “good girl, bad girl” myth to the young. Girls and women in the flesh trade are condemned as morally loose. Rape victims are frowned upon. The same goes for unplanned pregnancies. By withholding help, pregnant teenage girls are kicked out of school. Many are forced to turn to illegal abortions. Many die as a consequence. Their sexual partners, even in rape cases, are let off the hook.

What about ethnic discrimination? Instead of teaching that our society is culturally pluralistic and that various ethnic groups have contributed to the country’s cultural richness and prosperity, the young are brainwashed into believing that only ethnic Buddhist Thais own this country, and that other ethnicities are outsiders, thus not deserving equal rights and treatment.

While schools extol militarism and demand total obedience, the same authoritarianism dominates all state mechanisms. Citizens are treated as children. Those who dare question authorities are scolded and and suppressed. It is why democracy has a tough journey here.

A far bigger problem than education quality to excel in tests is the toxic ideas the system puts into our own and our children’s heads. We need an open society to dismantle these oppressive values. If not, education will remain part of our problem, and never be a solution.

 

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