The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘uniform’ as remaining the same in all cases and at all times; unchanging in form or character. Thailand’s thinking on school uniforms has remained, if you may excuse the pun, horrendously uniform over the past couple of decades.
Bangkok Christian College, a prestigious private school, launched an experiment to allow students to wear, for one day a week, casual clothing. The intended goal was to see whether not wearing school uniforms would make students ‘happier’. This, predictably, whipped up outrage from the usual corners of cultural conservatives who wage war on anything resembling progress in Thai society. Happiness, in their eyes, is not a noble goal. School uniforms encourage discipline, the thinking goes, and forces students to discard time-wasting individualism. Such is the deeply-rooted nature of this accepted wisdom that many came out to oppose one school’s dress code change. Even the Education Ministry’s Office of the Private Education Commission sent a letter to the school requesting they ‘reconsider’ the policy.
There was, perhaps, a time when discipline was appropriate, even needed: in the days of nation-building amid threats from abroad, whether it be from colonial or communist powers. Indeed, much of Thailand’s strange military-like rigidity in the public education system comes from the era of military domination. These include, in addition to school uniforms, mandatory buzzcuts for boys and bowl cuts for girls.
Now this line of thinking is hopelessly out of date. Thailand’s insistence on depriving students of individualism, enforcing unneeded levels of discipline and insistence that only the authorities know best: these are symptoms of an educational system that has failed utterly to adapt to the needs of the 21st century. In a global economy that requires critical thinking and creativity, Thai schools continue to preach militaristic control and rote learning.
The results are not pretty. Our students score among the poorest in Asia . Uniforms and haircuts don’t seem to propel our students towards educational excellence. This costs us dearly in our economic competitiveness. On the other hand, Scandinavian countries, none of which insist students get a buzzcut, perform among the best in the world. Perhaps there is something we could learn from them?
Well, of course not, argues the cultural conservatives. It often seems that nothing in Thailand is ever changeable, with everything met with a chorus of “But that’s how it’s always been done!” Does it work? “Well, it didn’t do me any harm to suffer”. How about trying out a better way? “No!” The key takeaway is the clear aversion from any sort of evidence-based argument-building. The school uniform experiment should be looked upon as exactly that – an experiment to see what maximizes student happiness and academic achievement. If they are positive, keep it going; if not, end it.
Instead, the insistence that we adhere to what has always been done means we remain deeply regressive in so many ways, beyond mere matters of school uniforms and haircuts. Military conscription for a bloated army with few enemies to fight remains. Capital punishment remains the law of the land despite an overwhelming lack of evidence that it deters crime. Videos trying to promote traditional culture in a more modern light are harshly criticized. The list goes on and on.
The Speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow, said today: “If we only ever went by precedent, manifestly nothing would ever change”. That is timely advice. If our thinking has remained uniform over decades despite a rapidly changing society, something’s wrong. It’s time to change it up.