A group of students wallows in a pool of mud; not far away, another group is dumping dung into a dugout to make organic fertilizer—hardly what one would expect of a typical school day! But then, these are not your typical students, and nor is the Mab-Euang School of Sufficiency Economy a typical school.
Here, there are no desks or chairs, and the classrooms have no walls. In fact, there are no classrooms at all in the conventional sense.
“The classroom is everywhere and anywhere—the forests, the fields, the rivers, the temple, the village, the rice mill, and the barns,” says founder Dr. Wiwat Salyakamthorn with a grin.
Located in Chonburi Province, about 120 kilometers south of Bangkok, Thailand, the Mab-Euang School offers an alternative model of education based on the “Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy” introduced by King Bhumibol Adulyadei in 1981.
This is a concept founded on the traditional Buddhist principles that have guided Thai society through the ages. It calls for an approach to life and conduct that is based on the middle path, that avoids extremes and stresses moderation, reasonableness, and immunity. “Sufficiency” means to lead a moderately comfortable life, with enough but without excess or over-indulgence. All decisions regarding work, production, and consumption are based on knowledge and well-informed choices, and should therefore ensure protection from the inevitable calamities, such as financial crisis or inclement weather leading to crop failure.
This was emphasized by King Bhumibol in the Royal Speech of 1997: “It is not important whether we become an economic tiger or not, what is important is our economy is sufficient in ourselves which means that people can look after themselves. Sufficiency economy does not mean that every household has to produce their own food, weave their own clothes. This is too much. It’s important that each village, each district has to be moderately self-sufficient. Any surplus from the production, then we can trade in the market nearby so that the transportation will not be too costly. Many economists could criticize that this way of carrying out our economy is old-fashioned and outdated, they prefer trade economy but Thailand is fortunate that we have the ability to produce enough food to feed us all.”*
In his famous 1966 essay “Buddhist Economics,” the German-born British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher said, “People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade. . . . For it is not a question of choosing between ‘modern growth’ and ‘traditional stagnation.’ It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding ‘Right Livelihood.’ ”**
In the sufficiency economy, the ultimate aim is not the generation of material wealth. Rather, the goal is to create environmentally healthy, self-sufficient communities in which basic human needs are met through local natural production methods. Such an approach offers an alternate model of development in an age where limited natural resources and insatiable craving and consumption have led to rapid ecological devastation and human conflict in many parts of the world.
For Dr. Wiwat, the former director of the Special Committee to Coordinate Royal Projects in Thailand, the future vitality of sufficiency economy communities depends on the education of the younger generation. However, he sees the limitations of the existing educational system.
“Thailand is an agriculture-based country. But many young people, when they finish their studies, they prefer to go to the cities to get high paying jobs. They leave their parents and their villages, and abandon the traditional way of life. Over time, the farms become neglected and are eventually sold off. Education is seen as a means to get a good job to earn money. But money is an illusion. Food is real. What we need is a new paradigm in education, one that guides young people towards self-sufficiency and sustainable development,” he tells me.
In 2013, in partnership with Phra Sangkom Thanayo Kunsiri, abbot of Wat Phraborom in Chiang Mai and a strong advocate of environmental conservation and reforestation, Dr. Wiwat founded the Mab-Euang School of Sufficiency Economy under the umbrella of the Agri-Nature Foundation, an autonomous non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and strengthening the Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy.
Adopting a “home-school” approach, the residential school has 25 students ranging from junior high to high school levels, and another 27 undergraduates, including four Bhutanese students, from Arsomslip University, a private university in Thailand. These undergraduates come for specific accredited projects as part of their university curriculum. Most students come from a farming background, with a handful from the urban areas.
Students are encouraged to create their own educational pathways and choose from a range of free electives, including rice-growing, herbal medicine, environmental conservation, and organic farming and seed preservation. The school also involves local community members as teachers of cultural wisdom and practices, such as how to make clothing or how to construct a house using local building materials.
Instead of a fixed curriculum, students adopt a project-based approach that encourages entrepreneurial development and integration of traditional subjects into practice. Although some basic subjects, such as language and mathematics, are taught, the stress is on the practical application of knowledge. For example, students apply the concepts of mathematics and science in proportioning the ingredients to make sunflower oil, in the calculation of the dynamics in making dams, or in cost-benefit analysis in starting an enterprise.
For Noi, her aspiration is to design light and breathable clothing that will protect farmers from sunburn and clothing with a fragrance that is repellant to insects. Prayut, who is learning about organic farming, wants to be the happiest farmer in the world by sharing his knowledge with the rest of his village.
Undergraduate Sonam hopes to take the tools she is learning back to Bhutan to promote self-sufficiency in her homeland. Working with the other Bhutanese students on a small plot of land, they apply the guidelines of integrated farming, a practice that can help support sustainable agriculture and reduce waste to develop a model village. The land is divided into areas that serve different purposes—30 per cent for rice growing, 30 per cent for water retention, and 30 per cent for growing other crops and livestock feed, with the remaining 10 per cent to be used as a living area. In addition, three types of useful plants are grown: edible plants; plants that can be used to produce medicinal cosmetics, and sanitation and other household products; and plants that can be transformed into salable merchandise.
Besides practical knowledge and skills, the cultivation of Buddhist virtues such as simplicity, honesty, generosity, compassion, kindness, patience, respect for all life, and environmental conservation are deemed of utmost importance. Buddhist chanting, meditation and Dhamma-sharing form part of the daily schedule.
Ultimately, it is not just about self-reliance and economics, but about how to conduct one’s life with the right values, as Phra Sangkom sums up in the school’s four goals: “To develop individuals with good morals and manners, [and to teach them] to be self-sufficient, to master a skill they love and can use to survive, and to have gratitude. Besides self-reliant employment, we want to foster family and communal values. Our focus is on education to serve family needs and preserve ancestral resources. We teach students how to lead an actual life. Not everyone will subscribe to such a system. But it answers the need of those who realize the potential of our alternative education, which can enable their children to survive.”
Photos by the author unless otherwise stated