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Award-Winning Thai School: Green, Buddhist, and Private

“Life is deeper and richer than working in order to consume.”

So proclaims the promotional material for Panyaden, a new private elementary school in northern Thailand that combines Buddhist teachings and ecological knowledge in a half-Thai half-English education.  Highlighted recently on The Buddhist Channel, Panyaden is a fascinating effort to create holistic, Buddhist schooling that includes teaching children how to care for the earth.

The more I learn about Panyaden, the more intrigued I become about its social and political meaning.

Green is a hands-on thing here, and often focused on what’s local.  The school plants and grows vegetables on campus, without the use of pesticides.  They use natural insect repellants like wood vinegar, and produce biogas and bio-fertilizer.  Traditional knowledge plays a significant role: students learn about local botany and agricultural methods, regional food traditions, and small-scale textile making.

And yet, the school seems to be highly international, as well.  The gorgeous adobe-bamboo-recycled-glass campus (with a layout modeled after a tropical antler horn fern) was designed by a Dutch firm, 24H Architecture, and has won global eco-awards for sustainability and environmental friendliness. Panyaden’s head Spiritual Advisor, Ajahn Jayasaro, is not Thai, but British-born.  And one of the school’s core principles is to remain “academically competitive,” with a bilingual (Thai-English) curriculum combining the national Thai curriculum with the International Primary Curriculum.

Perhaps it’s this word “competitive” that points to a certain paradox about ethical schooling.  Life is indeed deeper and richer than getting a job, and yet Panyaden’s “375 students, including 10- 20 percent of local Thai kids funded by scholarships,” still face pressure to exist in a capitalist, market-based, competitive society.  I’d love to know more about how the founders, teachers, parents, and students of the school live this paradox, together.

What do you think, BPFers?  Should we ask our friends in Thailand for an interview for Turning Wheel?

Comments (6)

  • Dan R

    Panyaden looks lovely but it’s a private school with fees of around 120,000 baht per year (not including all the extras). That’s an enormous amount of money – roughly the annual income of a new teacher. This isn’t an escape from capitalism; it is capitalism in action.

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you for sharing that tuition figure, Dan! I was also looking for how much the construction cost, but I couldn’t find numbers. (Assumed it was huge, as well.) Yeah, I’m just really curious about the politics of the school. It’s such an inspiring aspiration, and yet, as with all social / political efforts, contradictions exist, as well. Like, this might seem cynical, but if the parents of the students can afford those very high fees for elementary school, then I imagine they might be owning-class people, reaping profits from market-competitive companies that probably take social and environmental shortcuts (a.k.a. exploit people’s labor and the environment) in order to stay lucrative. This is just a guess, but an educated guess. Either way, I wonder whether the environmentally aware education encourages students to investigate the sources of their families’ wealth, and the relationship of their livelihoods to the environment (for the students not on scholarship). Might seem advanced for primary school but these seem like the type of educators who might value an early start to critical thinking. (I base this prediction on some of the material I was reading from Ajahn Jayasaro, who seems to emphasize the importance of investigation in Buddhism.)

    What do you think, Dan — what questions would you ask of the school’s founders and leaders if you were interviewing them?

  • Dan R

    What would I ask them? I don’t know if I’d bother but a few (somewhat repetitive) thoughts:

    I’ve lived in Northern Thailand for a little over a decade and work occasionally (on a voluntary basis) in a local college and in the past have taught fulltime in Thailand so I’ve got some understanding of the background to this – the Thai education system, the social divisions, the enormous inequalities in wealth distribution, the way Buddhism is used in Thailand to reinforce existing (violent and massively inequitable) social structures, and so on. Thai society is massively stratified and by giving the children of the rich (and other than the scholarship kids, these are very rich children) an elite education, you’re far more likely to entrench inequality and injustice than to challenge it. How does Panyaden guard against this very likely outcome? After all, planting daisies and making your own soap is all fine and well but if your school fees are paid for my migrant labourers from Burma getting a dollar or two a day, well, I think the kids can do without the daisies and soap.

    In Thailand, there’s also a strand of environmentalist thinking that is profoundly reactionary; amongst the Thai bourgeoisie there’s a fairly widely held stereotype based on an absurdly romantic view of farmers and rural life – that in some way, the rural poor are blessed because of their poverty and lack of material possessions and that the bourgeoisie are really the ones who’ve lost out. Oh, if only they could enjoy the simple life which rice farmers have! This is all tied up with/shades off into the ideology of Thai royalism and criticizing that is a serious offense (just two days ago a magazine editor got 11 years for publishing two articles which were judged to be critical of the King). These fantasies of the rural good life, which revolve around organic farming and natural building (I’ve been building an adobe house for myself so I’ve seen and heard a lot of this) never confront the issues of poverty and the huge structural inequalities in Thai society. They never ask the bourgeoisie to look at their wealth, to ask where it comes from and what price is paid by others for all that money. All that’s left is a kind of green-washed fantasy land where organic pesticides and fancy adobe holiday homes are going to solve the world’s problems. Is Panyaden doing anything to counter that?

    On top of that, I also went to a very expensive religious school (in my case Benedictine) so I feel like I have an idea of some of what is involved here. The monks who taught me were decent men with (on the whole) sound ethics who genuinely wanted to educate young boys (single sex only) to be reflective, caring, ethical members of society. But most of my year ended up in business and finance, doing their best to screw the world and thanks to the first class education we all received, they’ve been able to do a pretty good job of it. Perhaps Panyaden is different but I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.

    As I said, I’m building an adobe house and when that’s done, I too will be using organic pesticides with my home-grown vegetables but all know that that’s really utterly insignificant and we have to resist the urge to think this amounts to anything at all. I’m a socialist (much more than I’m a Buddhist, where I really only have one foot, or perhaps only a few toes, in the water) so what I think is needed is David Harvey’s classes in Capital and mass social movements. I realise Panyaden is only a kindergarten/primary school so classes based on a close reading of the Marxist theory of value are probably a bit ambitious but the whole way the school describes itself is as a support, not a challenge, to the status quo, which is of course exactly what one would expect from a school which sells itself to the wealthy.

  • Dan R

    On the subject of construction costs, http://www.chiangmailifeconstruction.com is involved in the school somehow. They sell services in this kind of natural building. It’s not cheap. There’s a thread on a Thai building forum (http://www.coolthaihouse.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=40&t=3473&p=44956&hilit=bamboo#p44952) which has some details of costs for a simple shade.

  • Katie Loncke

    David Harvey’s Capital in the elementary schools, hehehe! Maybe someone should make a cartoon version of his lectures. :)

    See, this is the amazing thing about an international online forum for political Buddhists! Your observations help give me a better understanding of the political context for this ‘social change’ project; and I for one think the political context is extremely important to try to understand. I’d still be genuinely interested to hear how Panyaden staff and founders see their work in the context of these class-stratification and class struggle issues.

    I’m also curious, what brought you to northern Thailand? Are you involved with a socialist organization there? I don’t know much about the way Marxist traditions are manifesting in Thailand… I’d be super interested to connect with Thai (or Burmese) Marxists / socialists / democratic communists to learn more about whether Buddhism influences them at all, in their politics, or if it’s a pretty separate thing, like it is for you.

    Anyway, very pleased to meet you! And thanks again for sharing those specifics about construction costs, and the romanticizing of rural farming / peasantry. This is the kind of analytical political thinking I’m always psyched to be able to do with other students of Buddhism.

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