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History of Primary Education Reform 1871-1904

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Mon, 12 Feb 2018

1. Siam in the Expansion period 1905 – 1934

In the preceding chapter, we considered the foundation period of primary education reform from 1871 to 1904, particularly in relation to ethics instruction. In this chapter, we will consider the second period of reform – the expansion period. This period, extending from 1905 to 1934, embraced the last five years of King Rama V’s reign (1905 – 1910), together with the reigns of Kings Vajiravudh (or Rama VI, 1910 – 1925) and Prajadiphok (or Rama VII, 1925 – 1934). These were eventful years for Siam, witnessing the rise of a new political class, the country’s entry upon the international stage through its participation in the Great War and the League of Nations, the effects of the Great Depression, the abrupt transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy in the revolution of 1932, and the abdication of the reigning monarch Rama VII in 1934.

‘Goodness, beauty and prosperity will be with them throughout their lives if they have acquired education.'[1] These words from Rama V’s decree of 1871 sum up his vision of education, including its moral dimension. As we have seen, he began by ‘modernising’ education within the palace, but by the end of his reign had embarked on the expansion of educational opportunities to people of all classes throughout Siam.

Early in the expansion period, the subject of Ethics was added to the primary curriculum, its content comprising essentially a course in Buddhist morality. This reflected the anxiety of Rama V that the people would lose touch with their ethical and spiritual roots in Buddhism – a possible undesirable side-effect of his own attempts modernise (which meant, in effect, to ‘secularise’) the education system.

At the start of the foundation period, Rama V’s most pressing educational concern had been to produce more highly qualified and competent administrators to staff the offices of his government. By the end of his reign, however, the realisation was growing that a modern state needed not just a literate bureaucracy but also a diversely skilled workforce capable of supporting a productive and diversified economy. Thus, by 1913, King Vajiravudh (Rama V’s son) had proclaimed two national educational goals: to broaden the scope of public education beyond the art of reading and writing, and to educate the people for productive vocations.[2]

Attempts to develop basic education on these lines, and even to provide opportunities for higher education, continued through the reign of Prajadhipok (Rama VII: 1925-1934). In 1932, however, a coup took real power from his hands, leaving him as a figurehead. Nevertheless, the cause of public education was taken up vigorously by the new national government. Article 63 of the 1932 Constitution stated that ‘all educational institutions must be under the State and more than half of the population will complete primary education by 1942.'[3]

The revolution had been carried out in the name of democracy, but the revolutionaries were uncomfortably aware that the Siamese people had little notion of what would be required of them in a parliamentary state. Thus Siam’s the school system found itself charged with an additional task – to educate citizens for democracy.

Before focusing on the changes made to education in the expansion period, we must explore more fully these aspects of the historical context.[4][5]

1.2. Politics and Administration 1905-1934 (B.E. 2448-2477)

Faced with the advance of western colonialism, King Rama V had embarked on a radical program of modernization of Siamese society. Only a ‘modern’ Siam could preserve its independence and identity against Western power. But modernisation was a long-term strategy. In the short term, it was necessary to play for time by cultivating friendly relations with the colonial powers, in the hope of forestalling any confrontation that might lead to the loss of territory or sovereignty. Accordingly, Rama V signed a number of unequal treaties, granting extraterritorial rights to European citizens, and even gave up some of his dominions to assuage the imperial appetites of Britain and France.

From 1894, Rama V carried out a major administrative reorganization, putting in place a system which still forms the basis of public administration today. Administration was decentralized to regional and local authorities (Monthons) under the power of the Interior Ministry. Each region comprised a number of provinces (or towns), and each province a number of districts and villages. The head of each region was a Lord-Lieutenant, or sometimes a Viceroy, who was invested with full power to administer his area under the provisions of the Royal Decrees promulgated from time to time. Governors and district officers were appointed in all rural areas. Bangkok was exempted from this system, as the king remained its supreme head, although he delegated this power to the Metropolitan Ministry.[6] Taken as a whole, these measures were successful both in maintaining the country’s independence throughout the turbulent years of the Western colonial threat and in providing a foundation for the modern system of government.[7] [Was this the local government system that inherited responsibility for the local schools in 1935, after the failure of the local committee system was acknowledged?]

1.2.1. King Vajiravudh (1910 – 1925)

At the death of Rama V in 1910, his son Prince Vajiravudh succeeded to the throne as Rama VI. The first Siamese monarch to receive an education abroad, Vajiravudh had attended Sandhurst and Christchurch College, Oxford, spending nine years in England before his return to Siam in January 1903.[8]

As king, Vajiravudh continued the process of nation-building and administrative reform begun by his father. By this time, the educational initiatives of the previous reign were producing actual improvements in the quality of governmental administration. Junior officials were better qualified and more capable. In addition, at the elite levels of government, many of the king’s brothers had, like the king himself, completed studies in Europe in a range of fields including natural science, finance, public administration, military science, and diplomacy. They were able to bring this expertise to their leading roles in government.

As a result of the high importance attached to it by the crown over two reigns, government service acquired a prestige that made people prefer it to other occupations. In the expansion period, the government increasingly saw that this tendency was not wholly beneficial to the broader development of Siam’s society or economy.[9] People’s aspirations needed to be channelled in the direction of economically productive work.

Meanwhile, the upper echelons of the growing bureaucratic class had become part of a new social elite. There were two other strands to this elite: the officers of the new standing army, and the business class that had emerged since the Bowring treaty opened up Siam to free international trade in 1855. Together, these three groups formed a new ‘political class’ that increasingly resented its exclusion from power. As we will see, this sense of exclusion ultimately found expression in the revolution of 1932.

Vajiravudh, however, was more preoccupied with Siam’s fortunes in the international arena than with creating a fairer distribution of power within the kingdom. If Siam was to stay independent, its people had to be made patriotic and ready to fight for their nation. Accordingly, from the beginning of his reign, he tried to promote nationalistic feelings in Thai men and boys, and to develop military discipline and training. To this end, he founded the Boy Scout Organization in 1909. Boys were encouraged to join the scouts, where they learned to be patriotic, to obey rules and orders, and to sacrifice themselves for their country.[10] In 1911, a Senior Scouts Corps was established and became, in effect, a territorial army. As we will see, scouting activities were also eventually incorporated into the school curriculum. Thus, these patriotic and military virtues became part of the ethics that the school system tried to inculcate.

Another step in the same direction was the creation of the ‘Wild Tiger’ (Sua Pa) Corps in 1911. The name was borrowed from the group of men who kept watch on the frontiers of Siam. These Wild Tigers of the past were believed to have embodied qualities such as hardiness, patriotism, piety, fearlessness, and devotion to the king, combined with deep knowledge of both nature and warfare – all the qualities, in short, that Vajiravudh wanted to promote among Siamese manhood in his own day.[11]

World War I provided Siam with an opportunity to test its new military prowess, and to raise its international profile. Vajiravudh prudently maintained neutrality through most of the war, but in July 1917 he decided that the time had come to demonstrate Siam’s progress towards modern nationhood. He entered the war on the side of the Allies, sending an expeditionary force of 1,200 volunteers to Europe.

Shortly after entering the war, Vajiravudh also changed the national flag, abandoning the motif (introduced by Rama II) of an elephant on a red ground, and replacing it with the Siamese tricolour, which remains in use today. The choice of red, white and blue was a shrewd gesture of solidarity with Siam’s war allies – in particular the colonial powers, Britain and France – which had flags of the same three colours.

The deeper significance of the flag, however, was as a symbol of the new consciousness that Vajiravudh wanted to create in Siam – and for which education was to be an important instrument. The Siamese (still, in reality, mainly a nation of subsistence farmers, living in remote villages, most of whom had never seen a foreigner, or read a newspaper) had to be made more aware of their Siamese identity; they had to be made to feel a patriotism that transcended local loyalties, and become willing to fight or make sacrifices for their country. The new flag communicated this duty. It had five horizontal stripes (from top to bottom: red, white, blue, white, and red). The red stripes stood for the nation (and for blood spilt in its defence), the white ones for religion (the moral purity of the Dhamma), and the wider blue band in the centre – occupying one-third of the total area – symbolized the monarchy. The monarch would be a focus for patriotism, crystallising a vague sense of belonging into a specific obligation. In this way, loyalty to the monarchy became part of ‘ethics’ that were cultivated in the school system.

Vajiravudh’s efforts to play the part of friend to the colonial powers met with some success. Upon the defeat of Germany in 1918, Siam participated in the Versailles conference and became a founding member of the League of Nations. Having thus achieved a presence in the international arena, Siam began to renegotiate the unequal treaties of the two preceding reigns. In 1920 the United States became the first country to give up special trading privileges and extraterritorial rights, except in certain cases.[12]

But growing international esteem could not stop growing discontent at home, which was in fact being fuelled by education. By this time, not only members of the royal family were being educated abroad. Some members of the foreign-educated elite brought radical political ideas back with them when they came home from Europe. At the same time, Siam itself was becoming more exposed to western culture, as the growth of literacy created a minority market for newspapers and literature. Western novels and romances were translated, and film screenings were common in Bangkok by the time Vajiravudh came to the throne in 1910. Ideas of freedom and equality were part and parcel of this cultural influx.[13]

At the same time, the conspicuous wealth and unrestrained power of the royal family began to provoke resentment. The behaviour of Vajiravudh, an aesthete who loved display, tended to fuel this ill will. His coronation in 1910, a grand affair attended by royalty from Europe and Japan, swallowed no less than 8% of the national budget. This and other extravagances, such as his enthusiasm for palace-building, soon got him into debt, necessitating a foreign loan. For all Vajiravudh’s intellectual sophistication, such habits made it difficult for him to command the same respect as his father. A challenge to absolutism began to take shape in Siam among the new political class.[14]

Even before Vajiravudh, Rama V had been confronted with the question of whether to share his power. As we have seen, he resisted the suggestion that he move towards a more constitutional form of government in his lifetime. However, he realised that this resistance could not last forever. Shortly before his death in 1910, he stated to ministers his wish that the Crown Prince Vajiravudh should introduce a constitution and a parliament when he eventually to the throne.[15] When that time came, however, Vajiravudh did no such thing.

In 1912, two years after Vajiravudh’s accession, a group of junior army officers, exasperated with absolutism, plotted a coup d’etat. Their plan was discovered before it could be implemented and the leaders were imprisoned. However, the attempt forced Vajiravudh to recognise the vulnerability of his position. At first, he attempted to enter into dialogue with the critics by giving lectures and writing articles for the press (something that his education and literary ability qualified him to do), sometimes under the concealment of pseudonyms.[16] For example, in Klon Tid Law (‘Mud on Wheels’), he argued that the main obstruction to the development of the kingdom was the lack of competent people: the implication was perhaps that Siam was not ready for democracy yet.

But by 1916 the king had lost patience. Giving up on dialogue and experimentation, he opted for repression. He began by closing down certain newspapers on various pretexts, and in 1923, (after some years of hesitation prompted by fear of western criticism), he enshrined censorship in law, prosecuting many publishers and closing many presses. Yet even now, realising perhaps that history was against him, he equivocated by showing some willingness to move towards constitutional government. As late as 1924, he stated that:

If people really want a constitution, and if it is well intended, then petition for it. I shall not hold any grudges against anyone for doing so. I shall consider the pros and cons of the petition. I myself think that it is better to have a constitution, and feel that for one person to hold absolute power is not judicious.[17]

However, any further steps that he might have taken towards constitutional government were cut short. After ruling Siam for 15 years, Vajiravudh died of blood poisoning in 1925 at the early age of 44.

King Vajiravudh deliberately ignored the current tradition that each reigning ruler usually set up one royal monastery by turning his attention to setting up an educational institution instead; he had Vajiravudh College established under his patronage. [This might go better in the later section on religion. It might suggest that the influence of Buddhism faded a bit in Vajiravudh’s reign.]

1.2.2. Prajadhipok (Rama VII) 1925-1934

King Prajadhipok, officially named Rama VII, came to the throne in 1925. He promulgated many new laws such as the Land Expropriation Act 1928, the marriage law amendment 1930, etc. [Something should be said about the significance of these laws. Otherwise, the reader learns little from these statements.] All of these laws were thoroughly scrutinized [by whom?] and were strictly adhered to by the populace, which positively affected the country [This sounds too blandly positive and uncritical – see my ‘advice’.]

[Also, I think you need to say something about Prajadhipok’s policies on education and Ethics instruction. If he simply continued the policies of Rama VII, you need to say so explicitly. ]

Prajadhipok’s plans were upset by two great events. The first was the Wall Street crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression. Siam’s economy, like that of many other countries, was hit hard, and this fuelled the grievances of the political class. This dissatisfaction led to the second great event of the reign – the 1932 coup d’etat, which compelled Prajadhipok firstly to accept a constitutional form of government, and then to relinquish power altogether by abdicating.[18] As we shall see, the 1932 revolution also had an impact on the development of education, which thereafter was geared to the process of democratization. [19]

Even before the coup, Rama VII himself was aware of the dangers inherent in absolute monarchy. Intellectually, to some extent, he accepted the necessity for change. However, he proceeded too cautiously and slowly. Two years after his accession, he created a Supreme Council and the Committee of the Privy Council as means of broadening participation in decision making. Unfortunately, both these bodies were packed with members of the royal family and the aristocracy, and so did nothing to appease the frustrations of the political class.

Like his two predecessors, Prajadhipok took the view that Siam was not ready for an elected legislature. It would be unfair to dismiss this as a convenient rationalisation for maintaining absolutism. Prajadhipok was not the only sceptic on the question of whether democracy could work in Siam. In 1926, Francis B Sayre, an American advisor originally hired by Vajiravudh, was consulted by Prajadhipok on a variety of pressing political questions, including democracy. Sayre later recorded his advice as follows.

Discussing these issues with His Majesty, I had to point out the inherent dangers. In Siam there was no middle class. The Siamese peasants took little or no interest in public affairs but lived their simple lives in secluded rural districts. To set up a legislature and clothe it with real power overnight without an educated electorate to control it would be likely, I suggested, to invite trouble and possible corruption. Power uncontrolled was almost bound to breed corruption… As I talked with him I felt the utter sincerity of the new monarch and his real desire to lead Siam modern nationhood.[20]

The revolution of 1932 was not a mass uprising; no crowds were rallying in the streets. It was a bloodless coup conducted by leading elements of the new political class, eager to seize a share of power. Sayre’s view that there was no widespread popular demand for democratic institutions at this time is corroborated by the contemporary account of the Bangkok Times:

There was no evidence that the masses took any part in the recent demonstration. The discontent of several salaried classes, especially of the officers of the Army and Navy, clearly counted most in the movement. At the same time a contributory cause is to be found in the extension of education in Siam since the middle of the nineteenth century. King Rama VII introduced western methods and technique to the country and the numbers of Siamese students trained in Europe increased. And [these classes of] educated officials, administrators, and officers having once been formed, it was only a question of time and opportunity before they demanded a share in the government of the country.[21]

The coup was staged by a group calling itself the People’s Party. All of them were of the ‘commoner’ class (khun nang), in other words from outside the ranks of the aristocracy. The ringleaders had begun their conspiracy five years before, in 1927, when they were students in Paris. Their western education had given them a keen sense of the inadequacy and backwardness of Siamese absolutism in the light of current Western democratic ideas. Pridi Banomyong, the leader of the People’s Party, articulated its aims in six principles:

1. To guard independence in every way to ensure the security of the nation. This included independence in politics, the courts and the economy.

2. To preserve internal security and reduce internal strife.

3. To guarantee the economic well-being of the people, by creating full employment.

4. To make all citizens equal, so that princes and commoners had the same rights.

5. To grant all citizens freedom and equality, provided it did not conflict with the preceding principles.

6. To assure every person of a full education.

Acquiescence in the coup was not the only option available to Prajadhipok. Elements of the large armed forces would probably have remained loyal and fought the revolutionaries, had he given the command. However, he wanted to avoid bloodshed, and in principle he had long recognised the need to share power to some extent. He therefore agreed to the People’s Party’s demand for a constitution, hoping to maintain a position of leadership within a constitutional framework. Accordingly, on 10 December 1932, he signed Siam’s first constitution, ending 700 years of absolute monarchy. This was a major turning point in Thai history, and despite the many constitutions that have followed, the fundamental principles laid down in 1932 remain the same today.

Behind the scenes, however, Prajadhipok and leaders of the royalist cause struggled over the next few years to retrieve as much as possible of royal power. There were counter-coups and some limited military confrontations. At one point, Pridi Banomyong, the leading theoretician among the revolutionaries, was briefly forced into exile. Steadily, however, the balance of power shifted to the revolutionaries. In 1934, Prajadhipok sailed to Europe, ostensibly for medical treatment. Long-distance negotiations failed to reach a compromise. In 1935, apparently despairing of the situation, he abdicated.

Even today, the 1932 coup remains controversial. Some historians have criticized Pridi and his party for failing to follow their six principles, while others have suggested that the principles themselves were inappropriate to the place and time. Still others have argued that the principles were good, but were misunderstood or misapplied by subsequent rulers, especially Sarit Thanarat, the eleventh Prime Minister, (1959-1963) who in theory was a devotee of the principles, but whose actual rule was a byword for tyranny and corruption.[22] I would agree with his opinion that the six principles should be developed as a network system not separated apparently and also they must be adapted according to the change and the context of time.

On balance, however, there is considerable agreement that the move towards democracy in 1932 was premature. Some have gone so far as to blame Rama VII for being too fainthearted in his absolutism, arguing that he should have fought back more decisively against the new elite in the interests of the nation as a whole. As Sayre had grasped, the great majority of Siamese people at this point had no notion of democratic principles, and their participation in any democratic process could at best be passive. They could not discern the difference between absolute and constitutional monarchy. As for the coup leaders themselves, if their understanding of democracy lacked depth, their grasp of the real needs of the people was arguably just as weak.[23] To quote Sayre once again:

Students returning from England or France or America often were unhappy and disturbed, with half-baked ideas about democracy and human liberty; they wanted Siam to adopt Western forms almost overnight, as if these were but outward garments. Many felt that Siamese culture was out of date, and their minds seethed with modern, western ideas, often superficial and misunderstood. [24]

1.3. The economy and public finances in the expansion period

Although the Siamese economy grew overall through this period, trade was mostly in the hands of foreigners. According to modern government estimates, as much as 40% of the income generated by Siamese trade in this era went abroad.[25] Under the terms of the Bowring agreement, still in force at this time, Siam’s power to tax foreign businesses was narrowly circumscribed. [26]

In 1918, in the aftermath of the World War, the entire world was facing economic recession. Siam’s balance of payments was in deficit from 1920 to the end of Vajiravudh’s reign in 1925. Faced with falling revenues and the consequences of his own earlier extravagance, Vajiravudh was forced to make repeated cuts in government expenditure, and this increased his unpopularity among the military and the bureaucracy, which bore the brunt of the cuts.

This situation repeated itself a few years into the next reign. From the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, Rama VII found himself obliged to make cuts in public expenditure. He felt obliged to excuse his action to military officers on February 5, 1931, thus:

I fully realize that people who are the victims of the reduction program will be in deeper trouble since it is difficult for them to find other means of livelihood. I consequently feel extremely heavy-hearted and most sympathetic for those who have to leave. If I had other ways in which I could shoulder the burden, I would do everything for them but, as it is, I have no alternatives…. [27]

However, King Rama VII also encouraged and promoted the cooperative system by promulgating a law governing cooperatives in the year 1928. He commented, “Farmers who have limited capital but wish to pursue the same aims should form a cooperative so that they can mutually help one another in order to accumulate greater wealth …”[28]

Thus the great paradox of the ‘expansion’ period of education reform was that the state’s finances, which were essential to fund the expansion of education on the scale intended, were actually in crisis through most of the second half of the period.

1.4. Culture

From the reign of Rama IV, many aspects of Western culture were absorbed into Siamese life. As Europe was providing the model for progress in government, economics, and technology, its cultural influence could not be escaped. In some cases change was spontaneous, but in other it was imposed from above by the king.

One of the most visible changes was in people style of dress. King Rama V decreed that when he appeared in state, the officials attending him should not dispense with their upper attire. To appear ‘topless’ would look barbaric to foreigners.[29] Thai women had traditionally kept their hair short and worn a waist-cloth with the end pulled between the legs and tucked in at the back. Now [When, exactly?] they started wearing skirts, grew their hair longer, and wore it in various Western styles.

Other examples of royally imposed cultural changes include the introduction of an official calendar and the use of surnames. On the model of the Christian system of dating, Vajiravudh decreed the use of a calendar commencing from the death of the Buddha (the Buddhist Era, abbreviated as B.E.), which he introduced with effect from 1st April B.E. 2455 (A.D. 1912). He also required everybody to have a surname. This was an innovation, as there was no tradition of family names in Siam. In order to comply, most families had to invent surnames for themselves (in some cases, the king obligingly provided one for them!) Even today, although surnames appear on official documents such as passports, they play little part in social interaction: even prominent individuals, including politicians, are usually referred to and addressed by their first name. [all this is interesting, but can you develop it to indicate any specific impacts that the western cultural influx had on your main subject, i.e. primary education and ethics instruction?]

Yet alongside this Westernisation of culture came a growing official concern to preserve Siamese traditions. King Rama VII established a Royal Institute to manage the Royal City Library’s activities, investigate literary works, administer the national museum, catalogue and preserve ancient sites and objects, and to maintain Siamese arts and handicrafts.

1.5. Religion/Buddhism

Throughout the expansion period, the Siamese monarchy’s traditional support for the textual basis of Buddhism and Buddhist studies was maintained. Vajiravudh promoted the study of Buddhism in the Thai language. Several texts on Buddhism in Thai, compiled during the reign of his father, were already extant, and many writers contributed more during his own reign, especially his uncle Prince Vajirayan, the Supreme Patriarch. Prajadhipok convened a council of monks under the chairmanship of Prince Jinavara Sirivatthana, the Supreme Patriarch of his reign, for the purpose of checking the contents of the 39 volumes of the Tripitaka (the Buddhist scriptural canon) that had been printed in the days of Rama V, comparing it to editions of the Tripitaka from other Buddhist countries. Revisions were made, and a new text, known as ‘the Siam-Rath edition’, was printed in 1927.[30]

Prajadhipok took an interest in improving the education of children in Buddhism. He once said, ‘The teaching of Buddhism to children in Siam has not been satisfactory. Children must be taught to understand morals when they are very young. Religious texts for them should be written in a way that they easily understand.'[31] To remedy the situation, he established at his personal expense a foundation (which still exists today) to make awards to the winners of regular competitions for the best literary work in Thai on Buddhism. The winning texts were published and distributed to children on Visakha Bucha Day.

The position of Buddhism in Siam, and the role of the king in relation to it, were preserved in the 1932 Constitution, which stated that ‘the king must be a Buddhist and the upholder of Buddhism.’

The role of monks in the modernised school system peaked and began to wane during the expansion period. Although Rama V had clearly seen the need for professional lay teachers, he seems also to have envisaged that monks would indefinitely continue to play a part in modern education. This was part and parcel of his belief that ‘there exists no incompatibility between [the] acquisition of European science and the maintenance of our individuality as an independent Asiatic nation.'[32] As David Wyatt has put it, Rama V believed that ‘Traditional institutions [such as the] Buddhist monkhood… could, without creating copies of Western institutions, be bent to new ends that in essence were not so very different from the ideals of Buddhist Siamese civilization.'[33]

During the first part of the expansion period, practical necessity also contributed to the continuation of the monks’ role in schooling. Modernisation was still in its early days, and the shortage of trained lay teachers obliged the government to continue to rely on the services of monks. Indeed, as late as 1909, we find the government issuing instructions to local authorities that monasteries which had not hitherto made a contribution towards public education should be encouraged to take part in the general endeavour.

However, the aim was to produce specially trained lay teachers, and it was inevitable that these would replace the monks in the long run. After all, the monastic sangha was an entity in its own right, with its own agenda and prestige. Monks could never be so amenable to state control as a body of state-trained and state-paid professional teachers. For this reason, from 1915 onwards there was a steady decrease in the total number of monks teaching in schools, even though the number of monasteries being used as school buildings continued to increase for a while.

While discussing the role of religion in the new system, we must also note that, although Christianity as a doctrine had little impact on the development of Siamese education (there were relatively few converts), Christian organisations contributed significantly to its growth. It pioneered the modern system of public education in offering Western Education to the kings and his children in the reign of King Rama IV and V.


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