Joshua Forstenzer is co-director of the Centre for Engaged Philosophy. His research focuses on the value of democratic deliberative norms and practices. His most recent research pays special attention to the democratic value of higher education. Read about his latest work below!
In a little over a month, Thailand is set to hold its first election in five years. Had it not been for a chance encounter, I probably would not have taken much notice of this event.
I first met Jan in mid-June of 2016 in Medford, a suburban outgrowth of Boston. We were both enrolled in Tufts University’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies. Together with Peter Levine, Karol Soltan and 18 other engaging scholars, postgraduate students, teachers, community organizers, and artists, we spent 14 days reading and thinking out loud about how citizens can, under specific circumstances and with the right mix of ethical and strategic thinking, leverage their power to change the world.
Jan came to the group as a Lecturer in Human Rights and Peace Studies at one of Thailand’s top universities looking for answers. After a seminar on John Dewey’s democratic ideal (in which I probably spoke too much), Jan came up to me and asked how this democratic ideal might be relevant in a society marked by deep polarization, entrenched vested interests, and an educational system more committed to generating productive workers than engaged citizens. My answer to Jan was less reassuring than I might have wished: a lot of Dewey’s democratic ideal relies on certain democratic dispositions being in wide enough circulation to seek deeper democratic bonds. Little did I realise just how pointed Jan’s question really was.
Later in the institute, Jan delivered a lecture outlining the political conflict that had erupted between the ‘red shirts’ and the ‘yellow shirts’ in the run up to the 2014 military coup d’état. She explained that despite relative economic prosperity and attempts by civil society at building democratic institutions and introducing human rights norms, Thailand regularly suffers pangs of authoritarian zeal, often purportedly in reaction to the ‘disorder’ engendered by democratic life. Indeed, 2014 marked the twelfth coup of its kind in Thailand since 1932. Moreover, I learned that despite the junta’s crackdown on freedom of speech and political advocacy for greater respect of human rights, university students organized protests to make their thirst for democracy heard – at the risk of imprisonment or worse.
In the conversations that followed, Jan explained that civic education in Thailand is often perfunctory and focused on educating for ‘social responsibility’, which refers largely to traditional, non-threatening voluntary activities such as helping out in the community, donating goods for charity or abiding by the law and paying tax.
Near the end of our two weeks together, Brexit happened. Over the months and years that followed, my country of residence – the United Kingdom – started to fragment and polarize. Britain became a nation of ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’, with powerful players seeking to take advantage of the political turmoil to steer the nation in their strategic interests and popular discourse reeling from an education system that had prepared many for the responsibilities of employment but few for the challenges of active citizenship. With Trump’s election, my country of birth – the US – followed suit. Without coming near to threatening military rule, in 2016, at least two well established democracies (Britain and the US) began to resemble unstable democratic regimes, such as Thailand.
Jan and I continued to converse over the following years, noting with dismay the weakening fabric of democracy all around us. In no small part to relieve ourselves from stupefied paralysis, I think, we dreamed up various ways to continue to work together to respond to the unfolding events. We thus developed a research project focused on investigating the civic potential of Matthew Lipman’s (who was deeply influenced by Dewey) pedagogy of the community of philosophical enquiry in Thailand. This project will involve a dozen lecturers in Thai universities trialing the method and collecting their students and their own experiences along the way.
While holding free and meaningful elections is rightly the most pressing democratic concern for Thailand, we hope to show that the right kind of pedagogic practice can also help provide the ferment for a more stable democratic culture by empowering citizens to deliberate together and develop critical thinking skills that incorporate (as both Dewey and Lipman hoped) imagination, intuition, and empathy.
Dr Vachararutai (Jan) Boontinand and Dr Joshua Forstenzer have received a two-year British Academy and Thailand Research Fund Newton Advanced Fellowship to undertake this research project.