The intellectual highlight of the US Education Expo 2003
held at the International Center of Chiang Mai University on November 18 was
the VIP Roundtable Forum. Moderated by Dr. Damrongsak Bulyalert, chairman of
ACE International, the discussion centered on the topic “Leveraging US
Education for the Thai Knowledge Base: Perspectives and Synergies.”
General of the US Eric Rubin and Asst. Prof. Dr. Nipon Tuwanon, president of
CMU cut the ribbon to declare the US education fair open.
Eric Rubin, Consul General of the United States in Chiang
Mai, delivered the keynote remarks. He argued passionately about the
benefits accruing to individuals and Thai society as a whole through
increased educational linkages and cross-border networking. He reiterated
the statement made by Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State in the
promotion of International Education Week.
Consul General Rubin emphasized that the networks of
friends and colleagues made as a consequence of study in the United States,
“promotes understanding and differences across cultures.” He suggested
that such understanding, while not completely eradicating future conflicts,
could nonetheless prove useful for meeting challenges. Mutually shared
assumptions gained through exposure to similar ideas can make a positive
difference, he suggested.
Waters during an interview with a Montfort College student. She and her
classmates were obtaining information about academic programs at the US
Consulate booth and the Institute for International Education’s booth.
The “War on Terror” has led to misperceptions about
the availability of student visas for foreigners. According to Consul Rubin,
the war has had “almost no effect on Thais getting student visas. We
aren’t refusing more visas than we used to, especially since the
application process is more computerized.”
What went unmentioned is whether studying in the United
States predisposes graduates towards acceptance of American dominance in
world affairs in the current era of America’s preeminence in military
power, international politics, the world economy, culture and education.
events in Chiang Mai were part of a global celebration of Education Week
sponsored by the United States, Department of State from November 17-21.
Students from high schools as well as different universities were eager to
The most personal comments were made by Dr. Numchai
Thaupon, vice-president for planning and international affairs at Mae Jo
University. He discussed the hardships he encountered when studying in
America and offered poignant remarks about how they enlarged his perspective
of the world. He became a better scholar and has used his knowledge to help
raise standards at Mae Jo and promote Thailand’s intellectual development.
Although Dr. Numchai appropriated the clich้ that
“one has to think globally and act locally,” he expanded on this
sentiment with his incisive comments about how access to the best in basic
science, life science, medical science and engineering “allows Thais to
open their minds and develop critical thinking.” That’s because “many
colleges in Thailand force students into rigid courses,” prematurely
foreclosing advanced professional development.
Dr. Rux Prompalit, vice-president of finance at Payap
University, suggested that one reason for the rapid expansion of
international programs and increase in academic standards at Payap is that
over two-thirds of Payap’s faculty with advanced degrees earned them in
the United States.
Though at times sounding more like an extended advert for
Payap, his comments reflected an increasing trend in global education. The
adoption of the American model of undergraduate education with its
combination of general education and core courses and major subjects and
electives, is striking across Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, Western Asia
and South Asia. Payap has been a leader in Thailand in this regard.
Dr. Busabong Jamroendararasame, director of CMU’s
International Center, emphasized that the university is attempting to expand
its educational opportunities for Thai students. She emphasized that the
International Center’s affiliation with ACE would provide an important
cultural, social, and political bridge between the U.S. and Thailand.
The final speaker was Dr. Chalintorn Burian, director of
Southeast Asia region for the Institute of International Education. In
wide-ranging comments, she mentioned that American community colleges are
viable low-cost alternatives for Thai students. She also lamented
misperceptions Thais have about TOEFL scores. “Many Thais think that a
high score on the test guarantees them admissions to American universities.
High scores don’t. The admissions committee looks at many different
things, such as geographic location, which can be an advantage for Thais
since relatively fewer study in the U.S. compared with other Asians.”
According to Dr. Chalintorn, over 15,000 Thais studied in
America in 1997, which has dropped significantly since the financial crisis.
She contrasted the Thai trend with that of India, China and South Korea. In
2003, 74,000 Indian nationals, 64,000 Chinese nationals and 51,000 South
Korean nationals studied at American educational institutions. She claimed
that one reason for the downward trend among Thai students is that they have
decided to “take the easy road,” by studying anywhere abroad that is
inexpensive, regardless of quality.
We must “think carefully,” she said. “The U.S. will
always be the leader. All the new and bright ideas will come from the
U.S.,” she said with resounding vigor. She suggested that if civil society
were to emerge as a permanent part of the national culture in Thailand, more
Thai students will need exposure to America education since it is “the
leader in civil society.”
Despite the intellectual solidity of the remarks, there
were some notable lapses. There were no comments about whether an American
education necessarily leads to a greater convergence of interest in trade
and politics between the two countries. Nor was there any discussion about
the problems associated with transplanting ideas learned in the U.S. into
Thai social and political institutions. Indeed, at times, the comments
echoed those of some prominent American public intellectuals whose
triumphalist rhetoric often betrays contradictory historical outcomes.
Francis Fukuyama caused an international stir in his
neo-Hegelian tract “The End of History and the Last Man” (1993). He
claimed that the world was converging towards a liberal capitalist
democratic order. There would be no new fundamental ideas as the decisive
winner was clearly a new world order based on the American model. Yet, no
sooner had his book become an international best-seller the world began
fragmenting, sometimes in civil wars with religious and ethnic overtones as
in the former Yugoslavia and in many parts of Sub-Sahara Africa.
While there is much convergence in the world economy due
in part to the ways in which global trade is managed by transnational
corporations; and from the contours of a tri-partite division of economic
power (with the United States, a Germany-led European Union and a Japan-led
East Asia), there are still great divergences in the organization of
societies. Then there is the North-South divide in wealth and power that has
a palpable effect on the dissemination of ideas across borders.
Though a roundtable discussion isn’t the best forum to
discuss complex ideas, the role of education and the power of ideas to shape
and remake the global order is worthy of consideration. Consider the work of
the recently departed polymath Edward Said. In “Orientalism” (1979) and
“Culture and Imperialism” (1993), Said persuasively argued that
knowledge can just as easily be used to classify and control people as
emancipate them. In painstaking historical analysis and clever literary
investigation of submerged idioms of domination, he demonstrated the close
connections between social theories, literature, colonialism and conquest.
It’s likely that exposure to such ideas may allow Thai
students to reinterpret their country’s complicated modern history and
current Thai-American bilateral trade relations and cultural exchanges in
ways that are less celebratory than would one have gained from the
Also not discussed were more pragmatic issues such as how
well returning Thai students accommodate themselves towards a more
conservative work environment where personal initiative is not nearly as
appreciated as teamwork and maintaining strict hierarchical boundaries of
authority in decision-making. Thais armed with MBA degrees don’t always
have a smooth transition into Thai-owned companies; and those with public
policy degrees often find it difficult to convince more senior colleagues to
adapt to new theories and technological tools for completing work
This is nothing peculiar to Thailand, however. In Japan,
fast-track managers who are transferred to western countries to gain
experience and advanced training are often viewed with suspicion upon their
return. In South Korea, it’s not uncommon for tension to arise between
workers and managers with American degrees and more polished English skills
and their counterparts with degrees from Seoul National University,
Korea’s most prestigious university.
Given all of these factors, one possible scenario is that Thailand could
eventually face a brain-drain. Ambitious Thais with their American degrees
may find the lure of much higher salaries, less political interference in
their respective fields and fewer patronage networks to overcome more
promising. It’s happening in China and many other countries. This is a
situation that will likely gather more attention in the years ahead.