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Education " Can Fix " Urban Ills

By Ranjana Wangvipula, Bangkok Post, Thailand

Thai people have learned to voice their troubles on television as a way to wake up the government. But their complaints sometimes fall on deaf ears.
Thatís because they donít know how to target their message and they donít know who in government is responsible for solving their problems.
Blame the textbooks and teachers. "No one told them in schools who controls the rivers, cities and traffic,í said Tanet Charoenmuang founder of the Chiang Mai Urban Studies Center. Instead, when people make complaints, they just ask the" related agencies"  to solve their problems.
Even worse, most students are not aware of the problems in the first place, as they have little idea abut anything outside their books. The education system in Thailand encourages students to specialize in fields of study at the expense of being well rounded.
" Student majoring in German know nothing about politics and the environment, while those study engineering just (think about how to) construct roads all the time, but donít know local issues," said Tanet, who also teaches political sciences at Chiang Mai University.
In Chiang Mai, for example, traffic has been a problem for at least four years. Downtown streets are clogged with cars and motorbikes. The city lacks a good public transportation system.
But young people arenít concerned. "Girls just look at boys who drive cars."  The poor want cars, too, so that they will look rich," said Tanet, who is worried about the exhaust fumes that get trapped by the cityís high buildings and are held down in winter by the cold southern China winds.
The students, meanwhile, just concentrate on their majors without worrying about social problems. But without proper education, itís difficult to understand the complex nature of Thai politics.
Local traffic, for instance, is the responsibility of the Ministry of Communication in Bangkok, not Chiang Mai Municipality. The result, according to Tanet, is a slow and indirect response to local needs.
Few students will ever learn how the system works. "There are 28,000 students in the university, but I teach politics to only 70 students,"  Tanet said.
Tanet also blames the memory-oriented learning system of high schools. He said students are required to know the " exact answers"  on their exams and must take multiple choice tests to get into top universities.
Many attend tutorial classes after school and continue studying on weekends and in summers to memorise everything for the exam. They study like crazy. But when they get into universities, they are so sick of learning by rote that they no longer want to read good books.
You can find 401 comic shops around Chiang Mai University, but there are not intellectual bookshops,"  Tanet said.
Reform is badly needed. " If I were an Education Minister, I would abolish this national entrance exam."  Tanet said.

Tanet suggested universities consider accepting students who are good in extra-curricular activities such as music, not just those who are good at correctly choosing between " a, b, c, or d."
Chanakarn Wangwibul, a graduate of Chulalongkorn University, agreed that many students have no idea what books are worth reading. "They just choose the ďdigested information,"  which they are accustomed to in the memorising-based learning. Thatís why they read comics and magazines, which are easy to understand,Ē she said.
Chanakarn said the curriculum is so intensive that students have little time or desire to explore other fields. " They must first survive in their majors,"  she said. " Then, they just look for easy subjects as minors to upgrade their overall marks."
Chanakarn, 22, majored in English and studied Thai language as a minor. She did not take any classes on politics or environment Ė or any other social sciences Ė because the system makes it almost impossible to do so.
" If I want to take course in a certain department, I need to ask for the permission from the instructor, check the exam dates, which are possibly the same as my majors, then, if everythingís okay, join the class, where other students in that department have a stronger background than me," Chanakarn said.

Until such problems within the educational system are reformed, Tanet said, it will be difficult to create the public awareness necessary to solve social ills. " People need better education, understanding and press,"  he said.
But journalists cannot necessarily be counted on to give the people the information they need. The reporters themselves are products of the education system. " So, " Tanet said, " how can press benefit the public?"


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