History of Thai education

J.C. Shaw looks at the history of formal education in Chiang Mai and Thailand.

By | Mon 29 Jun 2009

In his book ‘The Kingdom of the Yellow Robe’ Ernest Young wrote in 1898, ‘until very recently the only schools were those in connection with the monasteries. In these schools reading and writing were taught by the priests…it must never be forgotten that most Siamese men can read and write their own language and that the country owes a deep debt of gratitude to these monks…’

As Latin and Greek were the languages of Medieval Europe, so were Sanskrit, Pali, and to a lesser extent, Mon, the languages of Siam and its medieval neighbours. However, from as early as the fourteenth century, in Lanna the dhamma script (used by many historians, including Hans Penth, to describe the Lanna script) was used (see it today on signs along the old Sankhampaeng Road); in Sukothai they used fak kham or Khmer script, often in inscriptions on stones. Even in those times – the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – ordinary Siamese men could read and write their own language, as is proved by the many fak kham marks and inscriptions on ceramics that were made at Si Satchanalai and Kalong.

Monsieur De La Loubere who was Envoy Extraordinary from the French King to the King of Siam in the years 1687 and 1688 had this to say about education in Ayutthaya: ‘when they have educated their children to seven or eight years old, they put them into a convent of Talapoins…they are taught principally to read, to write, and to cast accompt. They are taught the principals of their morality and the fables of their Sommona – Codom, but no history, nor law, nor science. The studies, to which we apply our selves in our colleges, are almost absolutely unknown to the Siamese; and it may be doubted whether they are fit for such.’

Some will be interested to know that there was, at this time, a Jesuit school teaching, in Latin, boys from Ayutthaya and Cochin China.

Ernest Young again: ‘Siamese children make excellent scholars, for they are very bright and intelligent. Only a mere handful of the population attend any school regularly…All ordinary school subjects are rapidly acquired by them, and they are adept in the acquisition of a foreign language. They learn to read, write, and speak English in the Anglo – Vernacular schools in about three years, with great ease and fluency. They are helped in this matter by their wonderfully retentive memories.

‘It is to be hoped that in the near future the government will decide on a thorough reorganisation of the few vernacular schools that come under the Education Department, for when they are properly taught and controlled, they will be very powerful for good, the bright and intelligent character of the scholars rendering all school work eminently successful.’

In Chiang Mai modern education was entirely the work of the American Presbyterian Laos Mission which was opened by Dr McGilvery in 1867. The Dara Academy for girls and Prince Royal’s College for boys were their greatest achievements.

The following comments are taken from herbswanson.com, a resource for the study of Thai churches.

‘The Laos Mission’s work played a major part in modernising the ancient and isolated Kingdom of Lanna. In 1879 two young missionaries, Edna S. Cole and Mary M. Campbell, turned Sophia McGilvary’s small literacy class for girls into a boarding school. By October 1879 that school grew to include twenty-five full-time students, eighteen of whom boarded at the school. The mission went on to create the first western-style educational system in northern Siam. Its schools taught, in kam muang, using the dhamma script, (they even had a printing press), western academic subjects including Siamese and English, western music, and industrial and domestic subjects. They trained many of the children of the princes and government officials in northern Siam. And the mission also created a fairly extensive system of village schools, normally related to local churches that fed ‘prime’ students into the mission’s boarding schools.’

The education of women was a major achievement. Traditional northern Thai religion stigmatised women with an inferior status and limited their participation in religious activities, which deprived them of formal educational opportunities since education was closely associated with religion. The Laos Mission, on the contrary, pursued women’s education with zeal. It believed that women played key roles in creating Christian homes, raising Christian children, supporting local churches, and teaching in church schools. It also believed that only educated women could do all these things well. Thus, the mission went out of its way to educate women. It also opened the doors of the teaching profession to women and hired the first professionally trained women in northern Siam as teachers for its schools. The mission, in short, tried to use education to westernise male-female social relationships, women’s social role, and the place of women in religion. To some extent they succeeded.