Uniformed and Uninformed

Chulalongkorn (we have murals of Hitler as a superhero) University is back in the news and you don’t whether to laugh or cry.

Its Faculty of Engineering seems to have spawned its own little Hitlers who are going round seizing the cards of any student not in uniform.  And even if you’re in uniform but not the correct one.  The blue smock required in workshops is OK if you’re in the workshop, but step outside still wearing it and you’ll get nicked.

And Chulalongkorn (our students give Nazi salutes in front of our Hitler superhero murals) University is backing this up with some serious threats.  No uniform, then no scholarships and no honours degrees.

The students have responded with a petition (and a rather clever video).  The numbers of students signing the petition is impressive.  But the pictures that show the signature collection are rather disturbing.

They are all wearing uniforms to sign an anti-uniform petition.

Their petition, a typical undergraduate screed with lots of nok chak ni (apart from this), argues that the requirement to wear a uniform outside the classroom is unnecessary, because ‘in this area no learning or teaching is taking place’. 

Now I am not sure how far engineering is based on logic (‘of course the bridge won’t fall down; stands to reason’), but the logical implications of this argument have me baffled.

First it implies that learning and teaching do take place in classrooms (and as an ex-teacher I can just sigh and say ‘if only, if only’) and cannot occur outside.  In other words, the students seem to subscribe to the fill-the-empty-space-in-our-brains-with- spoon-fed-facts view of education, and bugger learning anything by yourself.

Secondly it implies that while a regulation requiring uniforms outside the classroom may be unnecessary, it becomes necessary inside the classroom.  So these students, at the most prestigious university in the land, mark you, think that you have to wear a uniform before you can learn.

Now admittedly it is an article of faith in the Thai education system (without the slightest shred of evidence to support the notion) that the human brain cannot function if the human body attached to it is wearing the incorrect clothing.  Or if it is contained in a skull that sprouts the incorrect gender-differentiated length of hair. 

The strength of this belief, and the general parochial ignorance of things not Thai, leads a disturbingly large number of Thai university students to tell you that all the best universities round the world have uniforms and rules that require the wearing of said same. 

This belief, of course, is why every picture of Einstein or Hawking or Chomsky or whatever intellectual genius inspires you shows them in a uniform of some description.  This is why in the international rankings of educational achievement, countries with centralized standards of uniforms outdo all those countries that don’t bother.  Like Thailand squelches Finland.

For pity’s sake.  Is this all they can come up with?

Well, no, to be fair.  They also make the irrefutably valid points that cultures change and norms and regulations must change with them (though Thailand seems to be taking a decidedly authoritarian turn right now so that sort of backfires on them), and that mandating a uniform for adults (look, bear with me on this and stretch a point, OK?) is a violation of human rights.

The actions of the Student Activity Section of the Faculty in enforcing the picayune details of some remarkably long-winded rules on uniforms have no place in a university.  Or any educational institution, come to that.  The students are absolutely right to kick up a fuss.

But the way they have gone about it (apart from the funny video) is profoundly disappointing.  Suppose they win.  They’ll still be wearing uniforms and they’ll still have petty-minded bureaucrats deciding things for them.

Uniform-wearing is a symptom of a society that glorifies subservience to authority, legitimate or not, suppression of individualism and creativity, and conformity to a militaristic mind-set.  Just what dictators want, but not conducive to responsible, informed and compassionate citizenship. 

On the off chance that Chula has any interest in such a thing.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).