Education Systems Reflect and Support Government Systems

I’ve spent the last five days with a group of middle-aged Burmese development workers who will be administering Payap University certificate courses in Myanmar and on the Thai-Myanmar border.

While teaching a session on Adult Learning on the first day, I asked the Burmese development workers to reflect on their schooling experiences. Many mentioned the militaristic style of the government schools. As students, they were asked to memorize large texts and repeat them back to the teacher. They were unable to question anything the teacher taught, even if they knew it was incorrect. If students misbehaved, they were hit with a rod.

At the time, Myanmar was being ruled by a strict military junta. The junta was afraid of people thinking critically and taking away their control. Their solution? In flagrant fashion they shut down the country’s universities and put 3000+ of the major thinkers in jail.

More surreptitiously, however, the military junta’s solution was to use schools to indoctrinate the people to be obedient, to memorize and regurgitate, and to learn helplessness. It’s not rocket science. It was not an accident that the education system reflected Myanmar’s government system and carried out its purposes. (For more information on the current situation in Myanmar, a great new book is called The Face of Resistance by Burmese journalist, Aung Zaw.)

This idea–that education systems reflect government systems–is evident in America as well where business-driven values of standardization, competition, and individualism dominate the education system. This drives inequality in the education system and is inextricably linked with America’s vast societal inequality.

In Finland, the main focus of the education system is promoting equity as Pasi Sahlberg outlines in his book Finnish Lessons. The Finnish education system is the result of, and supports, its equity-based government and society. The result? They have one of the most equitable, not to mention highest functioning, education systems in the world.

So what about Thailand?

Last year, the NYTimes posted an article called “In Thai Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule” the main point of which was that Thailand’s education system reflected its military influence. This includes hierarchical organization, uniforms, strict discipline, haircut policies (that are enforced on the spot if disobeyed), and rote memorization.

Today, an article was posted in the Bangkok Post titled “Jingoism is not education.” (Unless you’ve recently studied for the GRE you may need a reminder that jingoism means extreme patriotism.) The article describes the Education Ministry and junta’s efforts to “inject” the Thai education system with more patriotism.

The author ended the article with, “The country badly need [sic] education reform. But this cannot happen if the Education Ministry still enjoys central control while operating in an old-world, autocratic mindset. This is where reform must start urgently.”

I agree. But it should not be a surprise the junta is trying to influence the education system and that the education system as a whole supports the existence of a ruling junta. If the junta is to survive as a legitimate form of governance (i.e. maintain control), it must enlist the education system to support its purposes.

We are all the reflection (and often become the supporters) of our cultures, governments, and groups. As humans we are incredibly ethnocentric, egocentric, and groupish. The question is this: How can we move forward? How can we break out of our natural biases, prejudices, and inclinations and move towards truth, peace, and freedom? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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4 Responses to Education Systems Reflect and Support Government Systems

  1. Brad West says:

    Since I work with a bunch of Finns, I asked about the education system there. Here’s what one co-worker said when I asked if Finnish schools are really that good:

    “Nope, but the system is.

    “One main point is how individual can question all what teachers and lecturers try to teach.

    “Yes, teachers can be wrong and they don’t know everything, there is always student or few who are interested in subject and know more than their mentors, even in lower levels. System allows questioning and sometimes even support that, sometimes.

    “System is so unique that whole book is need to explain even this one tiny part.
    Schools are not that good, but the system is.

    • Nice! So glad you saw this post and responded. I thought about sending it along for your thoughts. Always appreciate your thoughts.

      Great to hear your Finnish colleague’s personal perspective as well! Thanks for passing that along.

      I’m not sure how he, you, or any of us are defining “really that good.” That’d actually be a great thing to think about because I’m not sure any of our modern schools have it right. On the other hand, if we want to step into the questionable world of testing, Finland does insanely well on international standardized tests like the OECD’s PISA, which tests 15-year old students in math, science and reading.

      Probably a better measurement of a “really that good” school would be a place that looks something like what your colleague described: students being intrinsically motivated to learn about various topics (so much so that they personally study and learn more than teachers), the fact that s/he used the word “mentor” instead of teacher at one point says something, and any school that allows and maybe even supports students questioning teachers is a good start, too.

      Thanks again for the comment!!

  2. Kyle N says:

    That’s an observation I heard echoed just last week here in Bolivia–that public education systems tend to “reproduce the political model in power.” This was especially an issue during the dictatorships here in the ’80s, which was based on a 17th century Prussian military educational model. Even previous attempts in 1994 under a democratically elected leader to start education reform still only hinted at pushing back against a punitive classroom.

    Anyway, in Bolivia the most recent education reform law in 2010 came after the constitution was completely re-written and the state “re-founded” in 2008. The new education law sets high goals for things like relevance to rural ommunity lifestyles, professional formation of teachers and previously informal occupations (e.g. fine artists and craftsmen) and integrating the schools into their local communities. But, similarly, implementing the lofty standards of a beautifully written reform law is harder than it looks because the political model isn’t necessarily comfortable with all those reforms. It’s not opposed to it per se, but if the new law is successful, you’d witness a significant decentralization of power and agency which inevitably will at the very least discomfiting in a place with such a significant history of centralized power. Plus it’s an election year here, so what comes to pass in October will be crucial for the future of reform.

    • Hey Kyle. Thanks for this. Always appreciate a Kyle N. comment. I don’t know much about Central American education but glad to hear you’re diving in to the issues over there. In Thailand, centralization is huge and most organizational structures are top down. This is reflected clearly in the education system and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

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