Phoenix (pseudonym) argues that Burma’s current model of teacher-student relations limits debate.
Editor’s note: The original article was published in The Irrawaddy on October 10, 2022. Read the Burmese version here.
Before the annexation of Burma by the British, the only place where one could learn how to read and write was the country’s monasteries. The education of most young boys (since girls were prohibited from studying at monasteries) often culminated in the rote memorization of Buddhist scriptures. During the colonial era, the British government and foreign missionaries established schools and universities that taught modern subjects such as mathematics and science; consequently, monasteries as centers for learning became less relevant.
However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a new movement for national independence emerged, led by youths from Burma who were educated in Europe and India, and who aimed to establish a nation based on Buddhism and Burmese nationalism. During the 1930s, this movement had a strong influence over students from Rangoon University, who brought Buddhist traditions and rituals to the university precinct. The construction of a University dhamma-yone in 1934 and the existence of the tradition of paying respects to teachers, or saya-gadaw-pwe-dale were the most significant physical manifestation of Buddhism’s influence in the university campus. In other words, a secular realm, like a university campus, was influenced by a religion. This was not surprising; the majority of the students were Buddhists, and, at that time, they thought that the purity and very existence of Buddhism were being threatened by British colonialism, and they took it upon themselves to guard it.
Nevertheless, even after Burma gained independence in 1948, Buddhist elements influenced and intervened in secular affairs such as politics and education. Under pressure from the monks, in 1961, then prime minster U Nu proclaimed that Buddhism is the national religion of Burma.
Today, the tradition of paying respects to teachers continues to exist in schools and universities throughout Burma. The tradition has transformed into a formal ceremony held annually and organized collectively by teachers and students, in which students gather and sit on the floor of a great hall to pay respects to the teachers, who sit before them on rows of chairs. This tradition, I argue, is a hazard to ideals such as freedom of discussion and criticism upon which many modern universities are built.
According to the Burmese tradition, paying respect to the parents, elders, and teachers is a noble act; people believe that by crouching down on the floor and asking for forgiveness before the abovementioned persons, one’s sins can be erased. Paying respects is also an act of admission that the person who earns this respect is also greater than and superior to those who offer it. It is obvious that only an inferior individual pays respects to the superior one, not vice-versa. This act also establishes a relationship in which the inferior person must listen to and obey the superior individual’s orders. Being inferior means one has neither the intellectual capacity nor the right to question the superior person’s wisdom. I call this kind of relationship a “one-way relationship.”
This culture of deification of the figures in authority leads to the deification of public and political figures, and people would blindly follow those ‘teacher-like’ figures who preach what they want, rather than building a culture of healthy pluralistic democracy. It is worth noting that there are several teacher-like figures—whether they are civilian politicians, monks, or military personnel—who preach different doctrines, and they (and their followers) sincerely believe that the absolute truth is in their hands, while others are following the wrong path. However, they have a particular thing in common. They want to build a stronger and more powerful Burma, but they want to do it based on traditional values, not on democratic values. This might be the main reason why mainstream Burmese politics is brimming with populist politicians and their followers, despite intellectuals and academics’ efforts to shape a democratic Burma (since few hear the latter’s voices).
On the other hand, modern universities aim to seek new knowledge for the benefit of humanity as a whole. To acquire new knowledge, academics and scholars need to conduct research by doing critical analyses of accepted theories, exchanging information and results with each other, and looking at conventional wisdom with scrutiny. So, what does critical education mean in the global context? It means that students must constantly question established knowledge and hierarchy and be active thinkers rather than passive followers. In the Burmese context, however, we should start with teachers asking students what they think about the topic, and students answering back and explaining their reason for holding a particular opinion. However, for this to occur, it is necessary for students not to see the teacher as an all-knowing deity, and for the teacher to not look down on the students and try to shut down their voices. This would necessarily mean that one has to criticize one’s master’s works if they contain inconsistencies or if one disagrees. Moreover, even in the classrooms—or at least in the universities that follow the Western tradition—students are encouraged to debate and exchange ideas with each other and with their teachers. They can question their teacher’s ideas and even criticize them; although it is important that they do this rationally, showing respect for their teachers and fellow students when they raise questions. I name this kind of relationship, in which both student and teacher listen to each other’s ideas, a “two-way relationship.”
In Burmese universities, this kind of relationship does not exist due to the suppression of freedom of expression by successive military juntas and the deification of teachers. The lecture room in Burmese universities instead resembles a preaching ceremony or ta-ya-pwe in which monks preside over a whole ceremony, preach the sermon, and the audience obediently agrees with all the things the monk said. Teachers in Burmese universities read the textbook word-by-word and students sit in the classroom indifferently, occasionally murmuring their assent to the teacher. Students have not been given the intellectual freedom nor the skillset to analyze critically the textbooks nor the theories and ideas in them. The Burmese education system trains them to be obedient and not to question anything that has been spoon-fed to them. In other words, they have been put into a ‘one-way relationship” vis-à-vis their teachers.
It is worth noting, however, that there are some major ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) which, for several years, have been running parallel educational institutions for youth who live in the area under their control. A few years ago, I had a chance to visit one of these places and learnt that their classes are run differently from government-funded universities. They either draw up their own curriculums or adopt foreign ones, and I noted that, in the classroom, the teacher encouraged students to ask questions freely and to actively participate in classroom activities. It would be a good start if the students from those institutions and state-funded universities had a chance to exchange experiences.
To conclude, we must admit that this institutionalized tradition of paying respects to the teacher is an obstacle to realizing the ideals of modern universities. We must transform the relationship between teachers and students in Burma from a “one-way relationship” to a “two-way relationship.” Only after overturning the teacher-student relationships would Burmese universities abound with discussion and debate.
Phoenix (pseudonym) is a former undergraduate student at the Department of History, University of Yangon. He currently writes articles for The Irrawaddy, one of the most popular online publications in Burma, on a freelance basis.