Thailand Articles -
Education and The Arts
Education and The Arts
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, United States and British
missionaries introduced formal European education, primarily in the palaces. Up
to that time, scholarly pursuits had been confined largely to Buddhist temples,
where monastic instruction, much of it entailing the memorization of scriptures,
was provided to boys and young men. Like his father Mongkut, King Chulalongkorn
(Rama V, 1868-1910) wanted to integrate monastic instruction with Western
education. Unsuccessful in this effort, he appointed his half brother, Prince
Damrong Rajanubhab, to design a new system of education. Western teachers were
engaged to provide assistance, and in 1921 a compulsory education law was
enacted. In 1917 the first university in the country, Chulalongkorn University,
Emphasis on education grew after the 1932 coup as a result of the new
constitutional requirement for a literate populace able to participate in
electoral politics. Government efforts focused on primary education; private
schools, concentrated in Bangkok and a few provincial centers, supported a major
share of educational activity, especially at the secondary level. Despite
ambitious planning, little was accomplished. Even after World War II, the
educated segment of Thai society continued to consist mainly of a small elite in
Bangkok. The postwar years showed the influence of American education. By the
mid-1980s, perhaps as many as 100,000 Thai students had studied in the United
States, and tens of thousands had benefited from Peace Corps and other United
States government educational assistance projects.
Only 4 million children were enrolled in government schools in the 1960s, but by
the late 1980s nearly 80 percent of the population above the age of 11 had some
formal education. This dramatic change reflected government interest in
accelerating the pace of social development through education, especially in
less secure areas of the country, as a means of promoting political stability.
By 1983 an estimated 99.4 percent of the children between the ages of 7 and 12
attended primary school. (Compulsory schooling lasted only until grade six.)
Adult literacy reportedly was more than 85.5 percent in the mid-1980s, compared
with about 50 percent in the 1950s. Substantial public investment and foreign
assistance made significant gains possible in literacy and school enrollments.
The government operated schools in all parts of the country, but there were many
private schools as well, chiefly in Bangkok, sponsored principally by
missionaries or Chinese communal organizations. Several universities ran what
were effectively their own preparatory academies. In the late 1970s, the schools
were reorganized into a six-three-three pattern that comprised six years of
primary schooling, three years of lower secondary education, and three years at
the upper secondary level.
Students in the upper secondary program could choose either academic or
vocational courses. A core curriculum was common to both tracks, but the
academic program focused on preparation for university entrance, whereas the
vocational program emphasized skilled trades and agriculture. Only a small
percentage of students continued their education beyond secondary school. Some
who would have chosen to do so failed to qualify for university acceptance.
Secondary-school graduates often had difficulty finding suitable employment.
Even vocational graduates in rural areas frequently found their industrial
skills poorly fitted to the agro-economic job market.
Access to education and the quality of education varied significantly by region.
At the primary level, rural schools, administered since 1963 by the Ministry of
Interior, tended to have the least qualified teachers and the most serious
shortage of teaching materials. In an effort to increase the number of teachers,
other ministries, including the Ministry of Defense, offered teacher-training
programs. Although more students gained access to education, this arrangement
led to a duplication of resources. Competition began to replace cooperation
among some of the teachers' colleges and universities. Opportunities for
secondary education were concentrated in major towns and in the Center. In the
mid-1970s, Bangkok, with 10 percent of the country's population, had 45 percent
of the secondary-school population, while the North and the Northeast combined,
with 55 percent of the nation's population, had only 26 percent of these
students. The government has since attempted to rectify these inequities by
improving administrative structure, making education more relevant to
socioeconomic development, and adding qualitative and quantitative support to
both public and private systems. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s the underlying
problem of inequitable distribution of funds between the Center and the outlying
The Office of University Affairs administered higher education at government
universities (except for teachers' colleges, military academies, and the two
Buddhist universities) and supervised higher education in private colleges. By
the late 1980s, the country had 13 public universities, 3 institutes, and about
10 private colleges, the latter accounting for only about 7 percent of total
university enrollment. A Western education was highly valued, and those who
could afford to study abroad often did. Chulalongkorn University was the leading
domestic university. Until the establishment of Ramkhamhaeng University in 1971,
Chulalongkorn had the largest student body (18,000 full- time and part-time
students in 1987). Thammasat University (11,000 student population in 1987)
ranked next in academic quality. Operations at Thammasat suffered somewhat from
punitive measures imposed after the massive student disorders of October 1973.
Thereafter, Mahidol University (formerly the University of Medical Sciences),
which had nearly 9,000 students in 1987, began to overtake Thammasat University
as Thailand's second-best university. Another respected academic institution was
the agricultural university, Kasetsart University, which in 1987 had 11,000
students. All the major universities were located in Bangkok. The various
provincial universities, which were established in the 1960s and the 1970s, and
a number of specialized academies, some of them in Bangkok, mostly had small
student populations. Chiang Mai University, founded in 1964, however, had 13,000
students by 1987.
Pressure from a society that increasingly valued career-oriented education was
in part responsible for the government's establishment of two "open
universities," beginning in 1971. Both open universities were established for
those who could not be accommodated by the older institutions of higher
learning, and each admitted secondary school graduates without any competitive
examination. Ramkhamhaeng University conducted classes, whereas Sukhothai
Thammathirat University offered its courses via national radio and television
broadcasts and by correspondence. In 1987 Ramkhamhaeng had more than 400,000
students enrolled and Sukhothai Thammathirat more than 150,000.
To maintain its own language and script, Thailand constantly promoted reading
through both formal and informal education. Thailand had one of the highest
levels of functional literacy in Asia as well as one of the largest publishing
rates per person of any developing nation. In 1982 there were 5,645 titles
published, more than 7 million radio receivers, 830,000 televisions, 69 daily
newspapers, and 175 periodicals. Thai-language paperbacks, often translations of
English-language best-sellers or "how to" books, had a wide audience. The
publishing house of Kled Thai, with 60 percent of the national market,
distributed between 80,000 and 120,000 volumes monthly.
Thailand had a long history of written literature dating back to the thirteenth
century, when much of the literature written in poetic style was religious or
related to the monarchy. Examples include the Maha Chat Kham Luang, an epic
adapted from the Buddhist Jataka tales, and Kotmai Tra Sam Duang, a legal work
on Buddhist ethics. Beginning with the Chakkri Dynasty in the late eighteenth
century, writing for both the court and the public flourished. New trends in
literary style included Phra Aphai Mani, by Thailand's greatest poet Sunthon Phu
(1786-1855), the written version of the popular epic romance poem called Khun
Chang Khun Phaen, and Sang Thong, attributed to King Loet La (Rama II, 1809-24).
Dynastic chronicles and poetry usually were dominant until the twentieth
century, when King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-25) helped foster the birth of the
modern Thai novel. Modern life was the theme of books such as Phudi (The
Genteel) by Dotmai Sot (1905-63) or Songkhram Chiwit (The War of Life) by social
realist Si Burapha (1905-74). Specific social ills, such as inadequate
education, were documented in Khammaan Khonkhai's Khru Ban Nok, translated by
Genhan Wijeyeaardene as The Teachers of Mad Dog Swamp, or in the revolutionary
writings of Chit Phumisak and the progressive poetry of Naovarat Pongpaiboon.
American culture influenced modern Thai art forms both through Thai artists
studying in the United States and through the popularity of Hollywood movies.
Modern artists such as Kamol Tassananchalee have integrated American ideas into
Thai art, just as centuries before the artists of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya
applied Indian or Khmer concepts to Thai design. The modern period in Thai art
began in 1932 with the breakdown of the traditional patterns of static society.
A strong artistic influence in the modern period was exerted by the work of
Silpa Bhirasri, an Italian-born professor. The Thai motion picture industry's
first film was made by a younger brother of King Chulalongkorn in 1900. By the
late 1980s, some 3,000 feature films had been produced and a National Film
Archives established. Although a few of these films, such as Tong Pha Luang
(Yellow Sky, 1980) and Sut Thon Nun (End of the Road, 1985), were well known
outside Thailand, the language barrier rather than their quality or relevance
limited their distribution internationally.
In theater in the 1980s, Thailand produced khon (classical masked drama) based
on epics such as the Indian Ramayana (Ramakian in Thai), as well as more modern
plays. Drama, like books, movies, and art, has moved out of the royal palaces
within the last century to be enjoyed by a wider audience in a less controlled
form, which incorporates Western elements. The Thai people accepted
Westernization in all areas, including the arts, on their own terms as a
pragmatic necessity and not as something imposed by foreigners. For example,
modern techniques in set and costume designs, makeup, lighting, sound systems,
and theater construction were combined with traditional drama such as the khon.
Thai monarchs beginning with King Mongkut initiated and led this modernization.
King Bhumibol not only continued this movement but also widened its scope in an
effort to make regional art forms an integral part of the Thai national
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