CourtesyBangkok school children participating in Boy Scout and Girl Guide program
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, was established.
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 (see thailand/th_appen.asp#table4"> table 4, Appendix).
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 provinces remained.
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 (see Thailand in Transition , ch. 1). 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 identity.