At first, second or even third glance, it's difficult to define this school of 134 students in Buri Ram province. Even more difficult to grasp are all the groundbreaking ideas that went into making the school refreshingly unique. It is no embellishment to
At the entrance, visitors are greeted by the sight of a spirit house. However, this one serves a different purpose to other such shrines. It is not here for people to beseech spirits for luck or gifts. Instead, it is a place where people give, not take: a sign asks you to give consideration and empathy to others. The words of 18th-century poet Samuel Johnson come to mind: “Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.”
Its founder, Mechai Viravaidya, set up the school to offer what he calls “democratic education”. That vision has been realised, and more. Students select their teachers, and even their headmaster, by committee. They have a say in what the school teaches. They are encouraged to voice their opinions freely, not in flippant, senseless remarks, but with analysis and reason. Education by rote has no place at the Mechai Pattana School
Students do not pay tuition or any other fees. But that doesn’t mean the education is free. The students “pay” for it with good deeds such as community service and reforestation. They learn about the importance of civic duty and to value their community. They also learn they are accountable, not only to themselves and to their family or village, but also to wider society. They learn that each and every one of them counts in many different ways, large and small, in the greater scheme of national development. In the process, they develop character. The result is something very different from the one-dimensional cloned beings spewed out by the cookie-cutter academic system at which Thailand excels.
At the Bamboo School, students are taught practical skills and not kept confined within the walls of their classroom. On the school’s unconventional farm, they learn how to get the most out of the land without destroying it. They grow cash crops in sand and poor soil that they make fertile with organic fertiliser they learn to concoct themselves. They learn about the sustainability and productive synchronicity of all things in nature, include humans.
With a mere 30 per cent of Thailand’s graduates employed in white-collar jobs, the school sets out to show students their fallback options. It teaches them entrepreneurship, and how to be good at it. Students are instructed in social-enterprise farming, and the school helps them launch their own start-up integrated business. It also helps them set up their own micro-finance “savings and loans” – in simplified terms, a community “bank” – from the proceeds they earn from selling crops such as hydroponic lettuce, mushrooms, tomatoes and limes. The family of students can participate in their “bank’s” lending activities. They can borrow only after they open a savings account with a minimum initial deposit of Bt100. After six months, they are eligible for a loan. Students are taught basic bookkeeping skills so they can properly look after their own finance. They learn that they can take charge of their own destiny. And that is essentially the ultimate measure of human security and dignity – though one that seems to have lost its lustre in our society.
Recognising the other side of the education coin, the school gives teacher-training significant weight. Teachers are told that their job is all-encompassing, and not just to stand in front of a class and drone. Like their students, teachers are encouraged to think outside the box, and to engage in a process of mutual respect with their students and their peers. They do not have to kow-tow to bigwigs at the Ministry of Education, or politicians. Their responsibility is to their students.
Students are not only taught about renewable energy and the preservation of environment, they actually practice it. Solar cells power the school’s water pumps, fans, street lamps, lawnmower, as well as student dorms, which were built from decommissioned cargo containers. Students are taught how to make LED light bulbs out of solar panels, and how to make biofuel. They learn how to optimise precious and limited natural resources such as water in agriculture.
With the same bold and unwavering determination and creativity that he exercised in single-handedly reversing Thailand’s runaway birth rate in 1970s from nearly 4 per cent to a little over 1 per cent, Mechai intends to change for good the role of all our schools. Instead of being part of an enormously wasteful and hollow establishment, a school should serve as a “life-long learning centre”, not only for students, but for their families and communities. He wants them to have options in life, and the tools that will enable them to break the vicious cycle of poverty, broken families and the vanished rhythm of life that comes with urbanisation. He is not interested in temporarily fixing the “leaky tyres” of our clapped-out education system; he wants to develop a new generation of rural leaders that help turn a new leaf for our nation. This is citizen-empowerment at its best.
Already, the Association of Small Schools, with its 14,000-strong membership across the country, is working with Mechai Pattana. The goal is to replicate its new education model and ideas, which represent genuine hope of escaping the rut in which we have been stuck. Last year, Mechai Pattana worked with 46 of these schools, and hopes to increase the number to more than 150 this year. Most remarkably, Mechai himself managed to accomplish all this without spending a single baht of taxpayers’ money.
The Bamboo School defies all conventional models and definitions. Our failed education system has been bombarded by harsh criticism from people in the know, but none have had the courage, the willingness, the vision and the sacrifice to match Mechai Viravaidya’s effort to fix it. For five long years, he has been quietly singing his wise and innovative tune. It’s about time the country began listening.
There is nothing to lose except a failed future – the fate that befell Superman’s planet Krypton as his father rocketed him to Earth.