Let’s discuss! How groupishness and labels are hurting conversations

I’m reading an excellent edited volume on the aftermath of the political turmoil of Bangkok 2010 published in 2012 called “Bangkok May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand.” There are chapters from Thai and foreign scholars including the familiar names of Pasuk Pongpaichit and Chris Baker, Duncan McCargo, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun. It’s quite a smattering of different opinions with many things to chew on.

Something that struck me in my reading during my lunch break today were these words by Thammasat University Professor Chairat Charoensin-o-larn:

“One cannot today criticize the Red Shirts without being branded a Yellow Shirt or ammat supporter. At the same time, one cannot comment on the Yellow Shirts or on the government without being called red or anti-monarchy… Not only has the tolerance for different views diminished, but ‘free speech’ has been supplanted in Thai society by ‘right speech’ or, to use a phrase popular in the West, by ‘politically correct’ speech” (p. 93).

At Payap University in my courses, I struggled to get students to discuss openly their thoughts and opinions about politics in Thailand. In my thinking, the university is the perfect place to reflect upon and share ideas about politics. It’s a safe place under the blanket of learning, discover, and academic freedom to grow as citizens.

However, most of my students were unwilling to share their views. I asked the class why we could have such riveting discussion about human rights, economics, and ethics but we couldn’t talk openly about politics. They told me they didn’t feel comfortable. “People will label us and gossip about us.” Others mentioned worrying about not having opportunities available to them if someone heard (or misunderstood) their ideas.

This trend is becoming increasingly true in America as well. Partisanship is killing politics in Congress and political correctness is hurting dialogue in university classrooms. In America, it was a trend this graduation season to protest commencement speakers based on their political views like Condoleezza Rice who abandoned speaking at Rutgers due to student protests. In response to such trends, I was impressed with this quote by Michael Bloomberg at Harvard that was highlighted in this NYTimes article:

“Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative, is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship. There is an idea floating around college campuses, including here at Harvard, that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism. Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. …

“Requiring scholars — and commencement speakers, for that matter — to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.”

We’re becoming increasingly blinded by our groupishness and it’s negatively affecting our ability to discuss important matters and listen to the ideas of others. To some, overcoming these trends is a matter of critical thinking. To others, it’s a matter of spirituality and not being attached to temporal ideas and fleeting emotions (especially one’s own.) For me, it’s simply about relationships and learning and developing as global citizens.

My vision for my life and the lives of my students is to drop titles and labels whenever possible and to search together for truth, goodness, and beauty through discussion, questioning ourselves and others, and being open to wherever the journey takes us.


Posted in Academics, Politics, Thailand | Tagged , | 12 Comments

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.

Posted in Academics, Education, Myanmar, Politics, Thailand | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A timely message to my students and myself

Considering recent developments in America, Thailand, and all around the world, I feel compelled to write to my students and myself this incomplete collection of take-it-or-leave-it life lessons:

Listen to one another.

Recognize our intuitive attachment to our own ideas/beliefs/cultural tendencies.

Respect differences of opinion (even if we thoroughly disagree, which is okay).

Read lots of books from many different types of authors/genres/time periods/topics recognizing that each person had a reason for writing what he/she did.

Share humbly and openly our experiences (both positive and negative).

Act transparently.

Set our sights on principles (not personalities).

Work actively towards compromise in all our relationships.

Welcome criticism but test it critically.

Don’t take things personally – the thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of others should not affect anyone’s intrinsic worth. Criticism is what it is. Take it that way. Learn from it as best you can and don’t let it define your value.

Seek after self-awareness: Who am I? What has made me that way? What do I want to be, do, and have in my life? What is my current worldview? How do I know what I know?

Carry a salt shaker wherever we go, offering up grains of skeptical salt for all the opinions we hear and see, even-and perhaps especially-our own.

Write, journal, reflect, and seek mentorship.

Have a vision in life. Constantly refine it and don’t be afraid to throw it out and start from scratch.

Love, smile, and laugh.

Hug when appropriate.

Empathize. This means to try and actually experience the emotions (and reasons for those emotions) of others.

Continue to explore more deeply what it means to forgive.

Spend time in quiet.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I love you all dearly.

Posted in Academics, Community, Education, Everyday Life, Student Development | 8 Comments

Moving to D.C.

I’m excited to announce I am moving to Washington, D.C. in August to pursue my doctoral studies at George Washington University.

After a long process of applications and discernment, I’ve decided to enroll in an Ed.D. program in Human and Organizational Learning working with Maria Cseh. I am fortunate to be offered a full scholarship, which includes tuition, health insurance, a living stipend, and a small salary for work as a research assistant. I’m still looking for a living situation somewhere near Foggy Bottom. Anyone have an elderly parent or friend looking to exchange a room for company?

I am absolutely heartbroken and devastated about leaving Thailand. I plan on visiting as often as I can and will perhaps do research on Southeast Asian educational institutions. I’m also thinking about getting a motorbike back in the US to help ease the pain.

Still, the thought of leaving Thailand isn’t so bad when I think about how close I will be to family back in America. I’ve been away for 4 of the last 5 years and am looking forward to being based closer to home. If there’s one thing Thailand has taught me over the years, it is the importance of family. More reflections coming soon.

See you in August, America.

At an ASEAN +3 Panel Discussion

At an ASEAN +3 Panel Discussion

Posted in D.C., Education, Family, George Washington University, Thailand | 7 Comments


I lost two people very close to me in the last few months. My paternal grandmother that we affectionately called Noni passed away in February this year and my graduate school housemate Sanford passed away in December 2013.

Sanford’s son Ralph let me know he went peacefully at home. “He exited as gracefully as he had lived.” And he certainly did live gracefully. Of course the list of ways he showed grace to me is quite long. Here’s a few snippets.

I remember fondly the scores of evenings we spent discussing our days, current events, and whatever else was on our minds. I will miss his signature dishes: Viennese goulash, chicken paprikash, and a fine cut of halibut or sea bass. Of course we would have bitters before dinner, wine with dinner, an espresso after dinner, and then for his midnight snack we would have vodka on the rocks, half a beer, Triscuit crackers, pineapple, and dried sausage.

He absolutely loved meeting all my graduate school friends all over the course of the year and was amazed at how many parties I went to. He was so affirming. I remember getting all dressed up for a party and I asked Sanford how I looked. He exclaimed, “Wow! You look perfect!” Here got us lobster for my graduation dinner. He also went into the cellar and found an expensive bottle of champagne for us to share.


When Noni died I was back in Thailand. I found out first that she had gone to sleep in hospice care and knew it was soon to be over. In times like these I have trained myself to find the closest person I can and cry it out. I asked the secretary to talk in the meeting room and before I could finish telling her my grandmother was dying I burst into tears.


After crying with the secretary, I went to teach my class. Despite the subject being math and logic for daily living I started with a quick note about loss and the importance of community and supporting one another. “How many people here have lost someone they love?” I knew one young woman in the class had lost her boyfriend just the year before and a beloved student passed away earlier this year as well. Many hands went up. I teared up as I shared about my grandmother and how precious life is. I could see a few of my students tearing up as well. This will go down as a special moment in my teaching career.

Noni was an amazing grandmother and I am so thankful for all the times we spent together over the years. I remember running around her house as a kid and watching as her house seemed slowly to shrink as I grew up. I will always remember the Italian wedding soup, watching TV together, the many sleepovers we had at her house, and the dozens of pictures of us she kept on her fridge.

I am so thankful to have had both Noni and Sanford in my life. They blessed me incredibly, and I’m better able to serve the world and live in peace because of them. I am also thankful to be a part of a community that supports one another in times of loss.

Posted in Community, Everyday Life, Family | 2 Comments

Season’s Greetings Payap Students!

Wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!! See you soon!


Avoiding the GERM in Education Reform

I had the chance to join a large education conference in Bangkok last week during our semester break. The main speaker was Pasi Sahlberg who is a scholar and educator from Finland. For the last 10 years or so, Finland has ranked at the top in the world according to international assessments and his talk centered around the work Finland has done to get there. While I heard great things from the other speakers such as Linda Darling-Hammond who has done amazing work in California, Pasi’s talk turned out to be nothing short of paradigm-shifting.

Ozzie with Pasi

He juxtaposed the largely American way of doing education reform, what he called the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, with the Finnish Way of doing education reform. He framed it very well and even included a map of the world with red blotches where this GERM had infected. (The US was one giant red blotch.)

In summary, he had four main points:

1. Where the GERM values competition (between students, teachers, and schools), the Finnish way promotes cooperation, collaboration, and community, i.e. everyone working together, including universities, to make education better.

2. Where the GERM lifts up standardization as the way forward (standardization of students, teachers, subjects, material, etc.) the Finnish Way centers around personalization and customization. The Finnish way recognizes that standardization negatively affects creativity and mostly rejects the differences of students. One interesting result of this is that it is estimated that up to half of Finnish students spend at least some time in special education programs that seek to help students in any specific areas they need it. This also drastically reduces the stigma around such programs.

3. Where GERM is all about test-based accountability (where everyone must “show evidence” of improvements), the Finnish Way is all about building Trust-Based Responsibility. As I sat in my chair, this point struck me as in opposition to the worldview I had internalized over my life. Accountability was supposed to be good thing but here was a man showing a more effective way.

4. Lastly, GERM has a core belief that choice in schools is a good thing. Choice in where your kids go to school will increase competition, which will create higher quality schools. Contrast that with the Finnish Way of fiercely promoting equity: all kids deserve high quality education, end of story. This has resulted in almost no private schools and all education is free, including university.

The Finnish way isn’t a one-size fits all cure-all, but there are important lessons that we would be wise in America to consider. It is notable that Finland has about 5.5 million people, which isn’t too disparate from the size of most states in the US (where most educational policy is made.)

He had a slew of fascinating points, far too many for me to rewrite here but I’ll give you some helpful resources, if you’re interested.

A. Here’s a great talk he gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Education last spring. I talked with him afterwards and I was glad to hear he’ll be joining the faculty there in January. A wise move, HGSE.

B. He has a book: Finnish Lessons. I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it. I highly recommend it to any and all educators (and other people in general.)

This talk really began to connect the dots for me. I have another blog post brewing as I’m beginning to see how what Pasi is talking about is so interconnected with a lot of things I’ve been thinking and reading about over the last six months, far beyond the scope of education.

Keep it GERM-less, friends.

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