A point that must never be forgotten, especially among the ruling elites and those with important administrative positions at the national and provincial levels and in the private and public sectors, is that as a society we have a penchant for self-delusion. Often, we would turn away from the truth. Also, we have been almost completely eradicated from our roots. It?s often said that we have successfully and wisely blended the universal with the local and adapted foreign ideas to the local context. But is this really true? Have we been able to carefully discern the strengths and weaknesses of Western civilization and prudently appropriate the features that are most suitable for our society? To what extent do we really understand ?democracy??and not to say of human rights?
Universities often portray themselves as a model of democratic governance and as accountable and transparent institutions. But have university presidents become too powerful? Have university councils become too dictatorial? Hasn?t the patron-client system flourished in university councils? A recent spate of maleficent acts by university presidents and councils, ranging from Srinakarinwirote to Ramkhamheng Universities, Thammasat to Chulalongkorn Universities, have thrown the picture of universities as a bastion of democracy into serious doubt.
What is the social function of the university? Is it to produce capable graduates for the job market and for life in the capitalist world? If the university is conceived in this way, then it is not radically different from a driving or computer school.
Thai universities are modeled after Western universities. Many if not most of their top-level administrators proclaimed to be Buddhist, but have they ever heard of the University of Nalanda or Takshila University? Oxford and Cambridge are reputedly the two best universities in the UK. But are we aware that William Blake once condemned these two universities for producing graduates who went on to exploit and oppress the peoples in the British colonies? Nehru was a leading figure in the Indian independence movement. However, when he became prime minister he governed India like an English colonist. He was a byproduct of the English education system; Harrow School and the University of Cambridge had brainwashed Nehru to see himself as superior to his fellow countrymen. To what extent have our Oxford-educated prime ministers been better than Nehru? For example, the Pramoj brothers and Abhisit Vejjajiva were Oxford graduates. Anand Panyarachun graduated from Cambridge. Was he a better prime minister than the rest of the British-educated ones? Isn?t Tanin Kraivixien, a law graduate from England, one of the worst prime ministers in Thai history thus far?
This doesn?t mean that all English universities are bad or have always been bad. Tony Judt recalled that during his time at Cambridge, professors there were truly knowledgeable in their areas of expertise and devoted their lives to cultivating the academic excellence of their students. They did not aspire for fame, wealth and political power. But then Judt conceded that today most professors at both Oxford and Cambridge no longer adhered to this selfless position.
The top university in the US is Harvard. Its motto is ?veritas?, which is Latin for truth. I have a Canadian friend who was a Harvard student during the Vietnam War. He didn?t see Harvard professors siding with the forces of veritas. Rather they gravitated toward serving (imperial) power in an ethically blind manner. A good example is Henry Kissinger who was a Harvard professor before he became National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Kissinger presided over the destruction
of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Another notorious Harvard professor was the late Samuel Huntington who preached about the clash of civilizations between the West and the Rest and who fanned fear of the ?Muslim? world.
Students from universities throughout the US came out to protest against the Vietnam War. But campus culture at Harvard, Yale and Princeton was much less radical, if not outright reactionary. Can we really say that these universities stand for ?veritas?, justice and human rights?
My Canadian friend turned to Buddhism to overcome the hatred he had for his alma mater. After graduating from Harvard, my friend became professor at a university in Canada. He introduced the study of nonviolence (especially as taught by Gandhi) into the university?s curricula. He told me that every time he returned to Harvard he felt nauseated by its hypocrisy and ethical blindness.
This is no small matter. But how many Thais graduates from Western universities have actually stood steadfastly for truth and justice, sided with the most marginalized and vulnerable social groups, lived in harmony with nature, and dedicated their lives to the social good?
Only a few names come across my mind: Pridi Banomyong from France, Puey Ungphakorn and MC Sittiporn Kridakorn from England. The ruling elites had betrayed both Pridi and Puey, and they ultimately had to spend the rest of their lives in exile.
The next question is why is it very difficult if not impossible for Western-style universities to teach their students to be good, ethical, compassionate and willing to serve the marginalized and vulnerable in society?
Erasmus had already pondered on this question at the time when Protestantism broke with Catholicism. The former accused the latter of exerting absolute control over knowledge, thought, goodness and morality. Therefore, the people had no space for freedom. Protestants began to ask daring questions that Catholics couldn?t answer. In the end, there was a huge pile of questions without answers. This gave rise to the creation of numerous sects, which provided answers to (some of) these questions.
Erasmus stood with Catholicism or the status quo. Nevertheless, he contended that it must be open to the new ideas raised by Protestantism. Erasmus was a significant figure who advocated the reorganization or reform of university education. He saw the importance of creating a college system within the university structure. The university and its colleges would be responsible for providing knowledge to students. But the colleges would have an additional function. They would be responsible for fostering the culture and practices that were necessary for the cultivation of truth, beauty and goodness. For example, the practice of professors and students praying together at the college chapel should be promoted. And so on.
Put another way, the university would lead in the provision of worldly knowledge. But the colleges would provide guidance in terms of ethical and moral development. College professors who served this function were called ?moral tutors? or ?in loco parentis?, which literally means parents of students.
Students were often influenced by their professors. Professors thus could act as the kalyanamitta of students. As long as they still believed in God and His Commandments, both professors and students could flourish as good Christians. As for worldly knowledge, it became a separate sphere.
When the belief in God became increasingly challenged because it could not be scientifically proven, education in the college system simply became ceremonial; that is, it became devoid of spiritual or moral substance. Modern science since Galileo and Newton had turned its back to religious teachings. And with the advent of Cartesian Reason, thought became the judge of all things. For instance, the more one is able to think or the deeper one?s thought the more one is seen as dominant?the more one is seen as superior to other human beings and animals?and even to nature as a whole.
This mainstream way of thinking cannot talk about the good. G.E. Moore of the University of Cambridge had clearly stated that the good cannot be defined, proven and concretely taught. Religion has also become less effective in teaching about the good. Moreover, mainstream thinking became embedded with capitalism and consumerism. Therefore, in mainstream culture people are inclined to be more power-seeking and sociopathic. As such, the excluded and marginalized in society became more vulnerable and oppressed. Nature is increasingly destroyed. Although Marxism is different from capitalism it is still not conducive to santi pracha dhamma.
Mainstream knowledge is also compartmentalized. For instance, medical science is only about the body that is delinked from the mind. The mind is disregarded because it is not a concrete organ. Medical science has also been attached to the interest and profit of transnational corporations. This fact must be fully exposed and critiqued. Another example is that the study of geography is detached from the issue of Earth rights as enshrined in the Earth Charter. We must respect the Earth. We must be humble in our relationship with Mother Earth.
The history that is being taught in the classroom is highly nationalistic. It often legitimates the violence and oppression of the powerful. Often, it provides hagiographies of great men, leading to for instance the uncritical adulation of King Naraesuan. People?s history as popularized by the late Howard Zinn is not taught. Thai history also tends to depict our neighbors and ethnic minorities in the kingdom in a horrendous light. Where are equality and human rights in all this?
I will not go into the details, but it seems that every discipline produces compartmentalized knowledge. Mainstream economics promotes greed. Mainstream political science nurtures hatred. Mainstream science promotes delusion. We must try to understand this in order to understand the role of the university in society.
There are however good signs here and there. We have more alternative sources of education. For instance, Schumacher had trailblazed the study of Buddhist economics. Venerable P.A. Payutto further developed it, and now even mainstream economists like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz have picked up on it. Stiglitz has warned that runaway capitalism will end up destroying the world. Today, the concept of Gross National Happiness is gaining currency. At the beginning of this year, an international conference on ?The Economics of Happiness? was even held in the US. Glenn Paige has pioneered the study of a nonviolent political science in his book Political Science without Killing. The Mind and Life Institute under the patronage of H.H. the Dalai Lama is also experimenting with Buddhist science. And so on.
So we are back to the question ?what is the role of the university in the promotion of human rights in the southern provinces??
To answer this question, we must first find out whether or not university presidents and especially university councils clearly understand the role of the university. Do they really know how to transform their rhetorical allegiance to truth, beauty and goodness into concrete results? Are they morally courageous and willing to open the university to be a place for the exchange of views and dialogues between academics and the most vulnerable groups in society?
An environment must be created to enable professors and students to serve as one another?s kalyanamitta. They must have mutual respect for and be willing to learn from one another. They must see each other as equals. If this spirit is successfully cultivated, it will be an important foundation on which selflessness and humility can be built.
This spirit can then be spread beyond the university. As our kalyanamitta, individuals from other walks of life, cultures, religions, etc. can broaden our horizon. We must be willing and ready to learn from them with an open mind and heart. From this point, we will be able to develop human rights concretely, not only theoretically.
If we understand that local wisdom is not necessarily inferior to academic knowledge, then this will be an important groundwork for democratic governance, which is not reducible to holding periodic elections and having a government led by the party winning the majority of votes.
Real democracy means absolute power of the people. Economic inequality in society must be drastically lessened.
Basic human rights entail the respect for one another; that is, mutual coexistence, the majority respecting the rights of minorities, unity in diversity, etc.
In the country?s southern provinces, most people are of Malay ethnicity. Most are also Muslims. We must pay special respect to them?to their culture, religion, and language. If we openly admit that the Thai state and ruling elites have long exploited and oppressed these people, there is still a possibility they will come to understand and trust us. This will not be easy. It will require a lot of patience and perseverance. We must first admit that we were in the wrong.
Excerpted from a speech delivered at Thaksin University, Songkhla campus, on 29 June 2012.