141st Meeting – January 1996

Society according to Thai High School Books

A talk by Niels Mulder

Paraphrasing Bourdieu, schools are brainwashing machines that condition the imagination of the innocent to think in ways the nation-state desires. Because of this, textbooks provide all the answers to what it officially means to be a Thai; they explain the polity, its history and current state of affairs, including problems of rapid change and the tribulations of democracy.

Schoolbooks are a treasury of standard information that all expats interested in the place in which they reside should avail themselves of. Since this is not practicable, I have made an excerpt of how people are being taught to think about their social life; it is available as Thai Images: The Culture of the Public World (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books).

As a social scientist, I wanted to know whether there is any system in Thai Social Studies, or whether it is just facts and indoctrination; in other words, do the students learn to think about things social, or is it no more than rote learning and the tittle-tattle of loose 'data'?

Nobody familiar with this country will be amazed that social studies at the elementary level consist of moral education and nationalism in which the individual is seen as a basic agent whose actions affect the wholesomeness of society—thus it is necessary to be duteous and obedient. Subsequently we are amazed to note that the first year in high school starts on the assumption that the economy conditions the social process. This theoretical line is too good to be true, and as soon as the problems caused by a developing economy are discussed, we are back at recommendations such as, 'We can defend ourselves against the problem of poisoning the environment by not littering in public places'.

From then on, the primacy of the economy is diluted by offering a plethora of alternative reasons for development that has the merit of presenting change as a complex process. Alas, analysing complexity without the benefit of clear suppositions leads to mere stocktaking, bar-room twaddle, and the appeal to the youth to behave. The problem with the latter is that “they do not respect their elders, are not interested in ethics, engage in free sex, dress awfully, do not control their body movements, and are given to unlimited consumption”, so that “all seniors fear that Thailand's progress is merely materialistic and superficial”.

We come full circle when the basic distinction between community and society is explicitly denied. The Thai are a community, the nation is one family, and so all can be made to fit the ideology of Nation, Religion, King, in which the Nation is duty-bound to its protective Father and everybody has gratefully to fulfill the tasks destiny poses him. This moralistic ploy shifts the perspective away from the public world and the institutional ways of ordering it, through the rule of law, impartial justice, political ideology and the practice of democracy (which Thai people are repeatedly said to love). What remain are incoherent 'facts' and person-centered moral solutions without end.