Thai universities failing on 21st century citizenship? 

opinion February 24, 2018 01:00

By Michael Shafer
Special to The Nation

Embedded in the curriculum, ceremonies of admission and graduation, and culture of the classroom are the principles of citizenship all students learn at university. 

Let’s look to leaders who have actually changed the world. Consider, for example, where real revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh or great leaders like Barack Obama acquired the knowledge, skills and attitudes that shaped them. At university.

If universities are schools of citizenship, what sort of university do we want? For 30 years, the apartheid regime in South Africa provided universities to train white citizens in the skills and attitudes of superiority. For 70 years, Soviet universities functioned to produce the “new Soviet man” who believed profoundly in equality and rights, but the rights of all as interpreted by the few, not the rights of the individual.

Different as their lives, ideals and methods are, Ho Chi Minh and Barack Obama form an interesting pair: they attended similar schools of citizenship, albeit decades apart. What characterised the citizenship education they received? Is this what we should be teaching?

Let’s start by asking: “Who is a citizen?”

It is, unfortunately, perfectly possible to be a legal citizen and no citizen at all. In fact, most “should-be” citizens are not citizens at all. They are merely residents. Being born in a country, having parents who are legal “citizens”, having met the legal requirements of “nationality” – none of these confers citizenship.

Citizens are not born; citizens are educated.

Ho Chi Minh and Barack Obama began as nothings – nothings full of the same potential as all humans, but certainly not as citizens of a future independent Vietnam or of an America that lived up to the promise of the “dream” articulated in the Declaration of Independence, one of the world’s great declarations of citizenship.

If citizenship is not a status conferred by outside authority, then what is it, and what do citizens require to be good citizens?

To be a citizen is to be a practising member of a community, both national and local. Citizenship is therefore the sum of the practices citizens perform.

What does this mean? To practice any complex job or role (medic, lawyer, etc) requires three things: knowledge, skills and attitudes. To be a practising citizen, an individual must have a critical body of knowledge about his/her nation – its history, rules, values and vision. (S)he must possess critical skills required to work effectively with other citizen, and (s)he must possess certain attitudes about how citizens of their particular nation ought to behave.

Which brings us back to universities and to the value-laden question of what sort of citizenship education we want our universities to offer.

Let us go back to Ho Chi Minh and Barack Obama. Think for a moment about these two men, one a colonial subject studying in a foreign city, a despised racial inferior, the other mixed race in a hateful, racially charged America. Outcasts both, marginalised members of nations in which they did not figure as complete men.

What did they learn at university, at their schools of citizenship, which taught them how to redefine citizenship in their respective countries?

• Knowledge: They learned the great traditions of human empowerment and development. They learned the past need not be the future and that humans can be – are – the agents of their own lives. Marxist Vietnamese revolution or Enlightenment liberal American revolution, they both learned that the world is man-made to human specifications.

• Skills: They learned how it is done. They learned the power of information and of an informed people. They learned the power of communication and how to communicate. They learned the power of organisation and how to organise.

• Attitudes: They learned new attitudes. They embraced the notions of equality and the common good. The committed themselves to the belief that all members of a community bear a personal responsibility for other community members and the community as a whole. They embraced the notion of the equal potential of all and discarded the assumption of the inherent superiority of the few.

These are the contents of a radical, modern concept of citizenship. It is extraordinarily powerful. It mobilised the tiny North American colonies of the greatest imperial power in the world to rebel to form a new nation. It mobilised a tiny Southeast Asian colony to rebel against its has-been imperial masters and then to defeat the greatest imperial power in the world. (And understandably, the resulting authoritarian government of Vietnam has entirely suppressed this concept of citizenship as potentially fatal for its own hold on power.)

Challenges for Thailand

But all of this begs the question: “What kind of schools of citizenship are Thai universities?”

The answer to this is not to be found on the university website, brochures or course catalogues. Thai citizenship in not part of the university’s formal curriculum. Citizenship is taught via the covert “modelled curriculum” that students do not study, but practice daily. 

In an educational system in which administrators wear military uniforms, where the university itself is organised around a command structure and teaching depends exclusively on the “lecture-by-professor-expert” model, the “curriculum” of the school of citizenship clearly bears little relationship to what Ho Chi Minh or Obama studied.

The curriculum is very Thai. It is historically and culturally grounded, and the knowledge, skills and attitudes that students/proto-citizens model daily allow them to slip easily into their adult roles as citizens. 

But just as economic development and globalisation have challenged the once safe consensus about Thai higher education as a whole, the accompanying social change may challenge this once safe conception of Thai citizenship. Just as a modern, global economy requires a self-motivated, critical-thinker, perhaps a modern, globally engaged Thailand requires an active, participatory citizen. 

Here we move from the realm of public discourse to the domain of private contemplation. But let me leave you with the four questions that nag me:

1. Can Thai universities discover and disseminate knowledge if they are built around the existing citizenship education model?

2. Is today’s Thai graduate a citizen who can lead Thailand to modernity in the 21st century?

3. If we conclude that Thailand needs a new kind of citizen for the 21st century, can universities change how they teach to provide the citizenship education to prepare young people to be better citizens?

4. Do universities recognise any need to change the way they teach, whether it is knowledge or citizenship, or should we not look to them for leadership?

Michael Shafer is director of the Warm Heart Foundation, based in A Phrao, Chiang Mai.