Critical Literacy: An indispensable, but missing, ingredient in Thai EducationSnea Thinsan, Language Education, School of Education, Indiana University, U.S.A. —————————————————————————————-
Thailand is one of the nicest places in the world in which to live, but it is not a place with the least social and other problems. In fact, it is like avolcanic beautiful mountain surrounded by breathtaking beaches! If you look at the trends of the many problems in the Thai society and how the young people are behaving nowadays, you will agree that certain things need to be done, especially with the education system. In particular, now that the world is becoming smaller, it is mandatory that Thais be critically literate in English, the language of power and for power. I will point out some serious problems and the worrying trends in the Thai society and propose a promotion of critical literacy (CL) in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching.
Problems Inside/ Local
While Thailand has attracted millions of visitors annually and has enjoyed the influx of foreign money for its natural beauty, rich culture and nice people, there are also many serious problems that have long existed and that were added with naive tourism policies. Let me mention just a few. First, our female citizens are being exploited or maltreated in numerous ways: child prostitution, flesh trade developed out of the increasing demand by foreign male visitors from countries with more economic power, family violence, and so forth. Try and type “Thai” and “Women” or “Girls” in any search engine and you will realize the degree and magnitude of this problem.
Another aspect of serious problems has to do with the environment: air pollution, water contamination, and deforestation, which are basically the results of the corruptible governments and civil servants, as well as the development policies that have emphasized GDP growth on the expense of the environment. Bribery of different forms is everywhere in Thailand, we have to admit. The environmental problems are serious because they have destroyed the pleasure that nature offers to us and affected both our mental and physical health in effect. Think about the air pollution level in Bangkok, garbage crisis in Chiang Mai, and water pollution in the industrial areas around the country. Our environment policies are not lenient, but the enforcement is weakened by the power of money and, in some cases, by the politicians’ power that is manipulated by their foreign and domestic counterparts in business.
Morality is also deteriorating in our society. News about people cheating, murdering, raping, etc. dominates the front pages of newspapers across the country. Buddhist monks, who are supposed to lead the society toward refined life, are committing serious sins everyday, leaving people without faith in anything but money. Thais in big cities are accused by many foreigners of being money-oriented. This means that we value money above morality and civilized manners.
As problems caused by domestic factors are growing in numbers and degree of severity, Thailand is also facing threats from outside. The Thai Baht attack in the mid 1990’s resulting in the economic collapse in 1997 is a clearest example of the outside threats in the globalization age. What is said in a foreign land is now heard by people from around the world because of the power of computer technologies and the Internet. In that light, Thailand cannot ignore what the global community says about it, its people, and its policies because, for instance, it may affect foreigners’ decision whether to invest, trade, or do business with Thais. No longer can Thais stand alone as a nation without the need to cooperate and compete with other nations. While nations in the globe try to cooperate and/or compete in many ways, the citizens of Thailand have to be prepared to communicate in English, a dominant international language. The voices expressed in English by foreigners now come with hidden agenda, embedded imposition, never neutral. Thus, we need to unpack the hidden systems of power, values, and cultural models that come with the English language that we experience, as well as their roles in the international communication and transactions.
Given the fierce competition among nations, Thais need not only be competent in English, but they also have to be able to understand the sociocultural and sociopolitical issues that the new communication tasks impose in this powerful foreign language, and they must also be able to manipulate the language well in communicating with the global communities. These problems that I have chosen as examples above are interrelated and caused by multiple factors in the complex sociopolitical and sociocultural systems at local, national and international levels. For people to understand them and act adequately to solve them, it requires serious actions by all the parties involved. However, looking at the ways Thais, young and old, are behaving and thinking, some may sigh heavily in despair. We Thais normally lack the sense of community responsibility because we adopt the “None-of-my-business” attitude. While we depend on our family and selected groups, we ignore the others. A husband beating a wife next door, we think it is their household business, not ours. Child prostitution, they are not my children! We are simply ignorant of the problems around us unless they affect us directly. Let’s look at other characteristics of Thais in general.
Thais are traditionally raised to be submissive to the superior’s suggestions or commands. We are grateful people, who will pay back to our parents and those who have done us a favor with respect and submission to their imposition, even when it is not ethical nor constructive. My father kept voting for the same politician who had done nothing substantially good to the community and the country, simply because the man seasonally gave small bucks (distributed within his political party) to the village temple before an election. Worse, some people voted for him because he had given them money under the “vote buying” scheme. In like manner, students believe teachers are good people who can give them knowledge for which they should be grateful; so they rarely question or challenge what they are told to do or to believe, being afraid to irritate or upset their teachers. After all, the people in power at the top level, namely politicians, rich businesspeople, and government authorities can do virtually anything to their benefits without being systematically challenged. Are Thais aware of all these scenarios? I think and hope we do, but too many of us just don’t care! Plus, gratitude is a good virtue I personally practice and believe in. The point is gratitude may be misused or manipulated.
What are our young members doing, then? Aren’t they our new hope? Concerned teachers and adults always complain that Thai students lack critical thinking, are lazy to read and think profoundly, are enslaved by fashion and luxurious lifestyles, give up their cultural identities for the superficial misleading Western pop cultures, lack interest in political engagement, are easily influenced by peers and the media, are easily drawn into drugs and irresponsible sex, and the list goes on. These claims may not hold true for all young people, but the trends are obvious. It is therefore easy to conclude that too many young people in Thailand are not sensitive enough about the problems around them, and they are even the victims or the creators of the problems themselves. Without the ability to perceive social and other problems around them as problems or some things wrong to pursue, these young people will not look at the many factors contributing to them. In essence, they will probably not see themselves as capable of making a difference, either. The worst can be that they simply think such problems are not their personal problems.
Having said all the above, I wish to propose critical literacy as a solution to be implemented in our education system. In addition, because global influences also contribute to the local problems either directly or indirectly, EFL teaching should promote critical literacy, too. What is critical literacy, then?
To make critical literacy the easiest to understand, let me briefly explain how it is practiced in the U.S. The best definitions are given by professors at Indiana University, who see critical literacy practices in education in four dimensions of efforts in disrupting the common place; interrogating multiple viewpoints; focusing on sociopolitical issues; and taking action and promoting social justice (Lewison, et. al, 2002). I believe that critical literacy is the indispensable ingredient in Thai education, but has been missing. Therefore, it should be promoted in all sorts of education, including EFL teaching, at all levels. Why? How?
To start with, critical literacy enables us to see problems as something wrong in the first place and see the taken for granted differently. We need to start there because, as discussed earlier, Thais in general have very low sensitivity about the problems around them unless they are badly affected by them. Critical literacy encourages people to critically look at what they normally see as acceptable, normal, or neutral, a.k.a. the status quo. In EFL classes, teachers could invite issues that stimulate different ways of thinking so that the supposedly known and accepted practices in the society are questioned.
Having sensitized themselves, the students can then start to question a given practice and move on to ask questions that will allow them to see the same issue from different perspectives. This is a crucial step because Thais are normally submissive to the superior and accept the imposed view without asking questions. Thai students are, in that light, perceived as passive learners, who only wait to take notes of what the teacher has to say. This is also pretty much due to the fact that Thai education emphasizes memorization rather than originality and multiple perspectives on one issue. While uncritical students are an indicator of critical problems in Thai education, we can also see them as a welcoming gesture for critical literacy to the classrooms. We can turn crisis into opportunity!
Asking many questions on a given issue may not be enough; we need to learn to ask the right questions that will lead us to a real, or better, understanding of problems around us. As I have mentioned above, any given problem is connected with many other problems caused by the various socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural factors both within the Thai society and in the global community. The questions to be asked, thus, should eventually address the hidden factors at different levels. Since critical literacy encourages us to see social practices as potentially unjust, the discussions usually lead us to see the inequality of access, unbalanced power, unequal access, and unfair treatments. The actual culprits, thus, can be identified, which will lend a good basis for the next dimension of critical literacy: taking social actions.
Social actions are traditionally seen as radical because social activists normally take on social injustices or challenge the status quo violently, but the actions can be based on a well-informed consideration of factors and thus become sensible and acceptable to all parties involved while still bringing about desired changes. I believe everyone is good at heart and interested to see the society a more livable place for everyone, but they need to see the long-ignored unjust practices as wrong and understand their roots before they feel inspired to make a difference and actually do so. Of course, the students can take a social action and may learn to practice the other three dimensions of critical literacy, too. We can leave that for further explorations by teachers and students at work.
Our EFL classes can use local issues in local English newspapers that reflect local problems. We surely have plenty of other local resources to provide them with multiple perspectives. At the same time, the richness of web-based materials, powered by strong search engines, will allow them to access information of all types both on local and international issues. The possibilities are immense.
I have been teaching English for 15 years and often felt that what I was doing meant so little to the world in my life time. With critical literacy as part of our goals in EFL teaching, I see the lights at the other end of the tunnel. We have been dealing excessively with the linguistic aspects of foreign language teaching and learning, and yet, Thai students’ proficiency in English, according to our esteemed researcher and educator, Professor Kanchana Praphal, fell below all, except one, nations in Southeast Asia!! (See http://www.dailynews.co.th/news/43704.htmlfor details.) Even after at least 12 years of learning English, our youngsters gain an average TOEFL score below 450. Perhaps, we have not treated language learning properly because we separated it from the hearts and souls of learners. Why don’t we let our students feel lives around them and become inspired to make changes to their world through reflections and practices that encourage them to use the critical lens they might already have in the eyes of their brains?
Snea Thinsan December, 2002
Lewison, M. Flint, A. S. and Van Sluys, A. (2002). Taking on Critical Literacy: The journey of the newcomers and the novices. Language Arts V. 79 (5), pp 382-392