VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Village schools are the surest sign that Northern Thai culture is evolving and village culture is vanishing.
Our village school in Ban Den, Sanpatong District is basically derelict, although the grounds are used once or twice a year for community events for which the village hall (which has no grounds) is not large enough.
The community school was built 60 or 70 years ago during a period of national expansion of elementary education. The government decided it was in the national interest to require all children to complete at least the fourth grade and be counted as “literate”. Before that time, only boys would go to school, if a temple community had established one. The government plan was to have a school in every village, in principle. In fact, some villages never had one.
In our Ban Mae sub-district of 13 villages there were 9 schools. The Village of Ban Den acquired Jaruwan Brachaphan School, named for the abbot of the Buddhist temple in the village. Our school was on one floor, divided into five rooms with four teachers, one of whom was the head ครูใหญ่. It is obvious from talking to graduates and village natives that there was school spirit and the school was a community focus along with the temple.
When the school closed due to reduced enrollment and transportation became available to larger schools, children from Ban Den either traveled to Wat Ta Pong School in the next village or competed to get into schools of their choice elsewhere. By that time elementary education was compulsory through sixth grade but free education was available through grade 12 for qualified students who could pass exams to get in. Although tuition was free at all government schools, fees for activities, books, supplies, and uniforms prevented many students from staying in school beyond the mandatory level.
Of the 9 schools in our sub-district, 3 are still in operation, although one has enrollment below the minimum set by the government and is maintained because some students would otherwise have to travel several miles to school. 3 of the other 6 schools are used by communities to store community supplies, one is a meeting hall, one has been torn down, and our school is standing idle. In all cases where the schools are closed the buildings have lost their function as centers of community pride and regular activities.
Demographics is part of the reason for the demise of village elementary schools. When the schools were built, a village of 100 houses would average 4 or 5 children per household. Recent statistics in Thailand show that there are now 1.7 children per couple with children. This does not count childless couples. The number of school-age Thai children is going down everywhere there is not population influx. Families with children tend to migrate toward towns where they can be close to jobs with salaries and schools that go all the way to grade 12. Professionals with children would be reluctant to move to a community where schools were not adequate all the way through high school.
Economics is another part of the reason for the decline of village schools. Elementary education is not considered sufficient these days to enable people to function in a consumer-oriented, money-based economy. So, educational institutions with elementary and secondary programs in sequence are preferred, especially since starting out in such a program reduces the risk of being unable to continue to higher levels. Schools give preference to students who are already in them, rather than those who would like to transfer in from outside. Most of our Ban Den secondary students are in schools with not more than two or three others from our village. Their social clique in school will usually be made up totally of friends from several villages away. Young people become oriented in school to being away from the village. The bride and groom in every one of the last 10 weddings we have attended were from different districts, 3 from different provinces, and one from a different country. It was rare for folks of their grandparent’s time to marry someone farther away than the next village or two.
To what should we attribute this movement of life out of the village?
Although the government has no priority given to preserving village culture, there is not (in this case) evidence that abandoning village primary schools is an attempt to undermine village life in behalf of homogenized national culture. That effort has been undertaken by imposing a national curriculum for all subjects, citizenship training, and scout programs for all boys and girls.
It can be argued that the government is responding to people’s desire for better schools with more opportunities for students. Parents express an abiding desire for their children to be able to get into schools and universities as far as possible since education is a key to upward social and economic mobility, and therefore to family security. So, larger schools are a popular choice. At the same time, larger schools operating at close to capacity are more economical to run than scattered, small schools with vacant seats and low teacher/student ratios.
Given the choice, most salaried workers would travel to work and leave children at home close to extended family members. Relocation of a family tends to happen when the distance to work is too far to commute AND other factors combine to make the move a better option. Even so, leaving the family center is the last resort, and most people try to think of it as temporary.
For the most part moving a whole household away from one’s village is not equivalent to moving into a new community, but is more likely to feel like moving out of community into fragmented life where aspects of living are disconnected. Urban industrial living is decentralized with education in one place, religious activities in another, recreation at a distance, and services scattered in every direction. In a housing sub-division one hardly “belongs” but merely “resides”. If a family member were to die, neighbors would need to be recruited to respond, whereas in a village everyone would know their role and respond automatically. Even in the crowded conditions of laborers’ housing, dorms near industry for example, a family rarely feels permanent and does not want to.
In the end, the dissolution of integrated community life is an unavoidable result of developing life around the need for money in a consumer economy. “A certain amount of dislocation” has to be accepted, and the acceptable amount gradually expands. Anxiety may reach unacceptable levels when unmanageable circumstances develop, such as the need to care for senile elders or acutely dependent youngsters. These were traditionally handled by the extended family system in cohesive communities. Government social services tend to be developed reluctantly, and the gap is where vanishing village culture is most lamented.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.