Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand received
an honorary degree from Pomona College on Feb. 4 in recognition of her work in
education and development in Thailand. Speakers at the convocation, which took place at Bridges Hall of Music, included Sirindhorn, Pomona President
David Oxtoby, Pomona trustee Bernard Chan PO ’88, Witisada Wattananimitgul PO ’16, and Pomona politics professor John Seery.
In her remarks, which drew robust applause, Sirindhorn touched on a variety of social issues in Thailand, including the inaccessibility of education for adults and the inadequacy of nutrition for children in
rural areas. She also
highlighted the importance of a strong liberal arts education, explaining that many people
in Thailand believe that smarter students should study technical subjects,
while weaker students usually concentrate on the humanities.
Chan and Oxtoby lauded Sirindhorn for her
promotion of the liberal arts in Southeast Asia, which Chan said are
under-appreciated in the region. Oxtoby went even further in his
praise for the liberal arts.
“I think that liberal arts education teaches you
two main things. One is to think creatively,” he said in an interview with TSL. “I think it also makes you question
dogma. You don’t learn rote rules for things. Critical thinking is a key skill
Aiman Chaudhary PO ’17, who attended the convocation, had a different view on the path from the liberal arts to democracy.
“I think the
move towards democracy is more of an evolutionary process, and so an
educational revolution, so to say, will not take the people there,” Chaudhary said. However, “it changes their perspective on how to view their own
Seery also disagreed with some of Oxtoby’s comments.
“I don’t really like, even
in this country, the PR campaign that says liberal arts creates great
citizens,” Seery said. “I’m uncomfortable with instrumentalizing
liberal arts education … I certainly don’t think our purpose in forging ties with
Thailand is to enhance democratic rule.”
Every speaker mentioned Sirindhorn’s warm
interpersonal nature and strong commitment to Thai educational reform.
you would think of a very royal person as not being down-to-earth or being very
approachable, but the princess was very poised,” Wattananimitgul said in an interview with TSL. “She’s made such a huge impact on
the people of Thailand.”
After a delegation of Thai officials visited Pomona, Seery was invited to be the keynote speaker at the fifth Thailand-US Education Roundtable, where he met Sirindhorn. When Oxtoby later traveled to Bangkok, he learned that the princess, a
strong supporter of liberal arts education, was interested in visiting Pomona. After the arrangements for her trip were made, the Honorary Degrees Committee made the recommendation and the faculty and the Board of Trustees approved the awarding of an honorary degree.
Sirindhorn is a popular political figure in Thailand, according to Seery.
“Even people who are anti-Royalist or
anti-the King or anti-her brother reserve a special affection for her,” he said. “She’s
known as the people’s princess.”
Through her philanthropic organization, the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Foundation, Sirindhorn works to expand access to education in Thailand and to improve the educational experiences of Thai students. In addition to many other philanthropic projects and unofficial roles, Sirindhorn is Executive Vice President of the Thai Red Cross and heads the history department of Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.