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The Duty of an Academic

Note: Attachak Sattayanurak is one of the six university lecturers charged with violating National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Order No. 3/2015, which bans political gatherings of five or more persons, after holding a press conference and releasing a statement entitled “The University is Not a Military Base” in Chiang Mai on 31 October 2015.  Following a summons, on 24 November 2015, they reported to the Chang Phuak police station in Chiang Mai and denied the charge against them.--translator


What duties should be fulfilled by academics? In a conservative society, academics have a duty to reproduce existing knowledge in order to inculcate the meaning and value of the original “truth, goodness, beauty” set out by our ancestors in order to protect the proper social order and against any desire for social transformation. This also entails slowing down any attempts to transform social and power relations. 

But in a society in which it is necessary for people to adjust themselves, such as present-day Thai society, the creation of new knowledge cannot be avoided.

This new knowledge causes academics to notice problems and faults in society which should be addressed. Out of necessity, they offer opinions and proposals to society, which then considers whether or not they are useful or worthwhile. The duties of academics then are not confined to the classroom.

Therefore, there is nothing out of the ordinary about academics arguing with state power, capital, or any other groups in the service of finding answers or carrying various matters to their conclusion. This includes raising questions such as what are the key problems that must be addressed? What are the primary causes of these problems? What are the solutions to these problems? What is society’s goal, and how will this goal be attained? And so on.  

Given that it is the duty of academics to create and spread knowledge in the service of the collective good, academics must have the freedom to raise questions and search for answers. Academics must also have the freedom to disseminate knowledge in order to be able to enter into debate with those who hold other opinions or subscribe to other bodies of knowledge. This is necessary for the production of academic knowledge. This freedom includes the liberty to argue with those who exercise state power about whether or not what they are doing is correct or on the right path (when examined from an academic perspective).

In the absence of freedom, the opportunity to build and disseminate knowledge for society to adjust itself and in order to debate with those who exercise state power will also be lacking. Society will lose the chance to consider new explanations and choices. It’s a shame. In the past, even during the time of the absolute monarchy, academics criticized every cohort that exercised state power. Opinions were widely expressed on the pages of newspapers.

If we look in particular at the past two decades … During the government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a group of social science and humanities academics (a large number are among those about whom General Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks) held a seminar  about authority and the “Thaksin regime” in Chiang Mai. The academics analyzed the economic and political regime under the former prime minister long before the emergence of the opposition movement of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) (please see the “Thaksin regime” issue of Fa Diew Kan).

During the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, academics offered the analysis that the rice pledge policy was misguided from the moment it was conceived (please see an example of this in a piece that I wrote on “The failure of the rice-pledging scheme: the creation of ‘artificial demand’ in a fragile market” ).

If we look back to the government of former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, he was criticized for working as if he was the “permanent secretary of Thailand” (forgive me, I cannot remember the name of the article I wrote about this because it was a long time ago). As for the government of former prime minister Prem Tinsulanond, although a large number of those academics with a role in the present were still studying and did not have the status of “academics,” many now-retired academics offered fulsome criticism and analysis on a range of issues that popped up in society. Academics share a desire, hope and dream to make Thai society stronger and able to adjust itself, and so they must then express their views. Some may raise the question of who is responsible if the suggestions offered by academics are erroneous or ill-intentioned towards society.

A teacher of mine once wrote in the preface to a book that I wrote that, “Analysis that comes to be held as incorrect has little influence because it is held up by others to be dissected until it rapidly loses all potency. Except in the cases in which erroneous analysis is in line with the interests of “mighty power,” in which many different kinds of barriers are constructed to surround the analytic framework to prevent it from being easily attacked …  the same danger does not arise from analysis as that which comes from snuggling up with “mighty power” … the trajectory of analysis … that is far from the interests of state and capital, if it is compared to a fortified camp then it is a decrepit one. If the analysis is not strong in and of itself, it will be attacked by others before it creates misunderstanding in society” (please see the preface to A study of the state of knowledge in history on ecology and environment).

The work of academics then is always under examination by academic society. Any proposal that is nonsense or good-for-nothing will quickly lose its meaning. If a given suggestion holds meaning that will aid in solving a problem or in the development of society into a strong and magnificent one, it will be taken up in the service of collectively building a better society.

I would like to offer my gratitude to academics from Thailand and abroad who joined together to express their support for the preservation of the spirit of the university and academic space in Thai society. Each person was willing to assume risk in order to protect the shared ideal of the academy. This is very laudable.  If we are without the power of knowledge, human society may be unable to resolve various problems and may have been unable to progress until the present.

Source:  “หน้าที่ของ ‘นักวิชาการ’"

Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.