Like other Asian peoples, the Burmese have high esteem for education and educated persons. Books are customarily treated with care (e.g., they should not be placed on the ground), and the term saya (hsaya), meaning "teacher" in the Burmese (Myanmar) language, conveys great respect. Before the colonial era, members of the Sangha were the chief custodians of knowledge, and Buddhist monasteries operated what amounted to a public school system, giving village boys and girls elementary lessons in literacy, arithmetic, and the basic principles of the religion. Scholarly monks were versed in Pali, much as clerics in medieval Europe knew Latin and Greek. Colonial-era European observers were impressed by the high literacy rates of the Burmese compared to the peoples of India, despite the complexities of the writing system.
   During the colonial period, education was revolutionized, as the British introduced secular and scientific curricula. On the elite level, English supplanted Burmese as the language of instruction. Many Burmese who could afford it sent their children to missionary institutions such as the Methodist High School in Rangoon (Yangon). Among ordinary people "vernacular schools," which gave instruction in Burmese or minority languages, drew pupils away from the monasteries, resulting in a decline in the Sangha's social prestige. The monks were unwilling to teach modern subjects like geography or sciences, perhaps because these subjects contradicted traditional cosmologies. A much smaller number of "Anglo-vernacular schools" taught primarily in Burmese, with some courses in English, while "European Code" schools such as those run by the missionaries taught in English, with Burmese usually offered as a second language. Following the student strike in protest against the act creating Rangoon (Yangon) University in 1920, activists established a system of nongovernment National Schools offering a curriculum emphasizing Burmese language, patriotism, and the Buddhist religion. They were viewed by the colonial authorities with great suspicion. Aung San graduated from the national high school in Yenangyaung (Yaynangyoung) before entering Rangoon University.
   In the Frontier Areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, Christian missionaries promoted their own educational revolution, establishing schools and nurturing an educated Christian elite among the Karens (Kayins), Chins, Kachins, and other groups, for whom a community without both a church and a school was unthinkable. Such education opened up new worlds for previously isolated and often illiterate "hill tribes." Nonindigenous Asian groups, such as the Chinese and Indians, also had their own schools until the early 1960s.
   Although the Burma Socialist Programme Party regime (1962-1988) was committed to expanding education and promoting nationwide literacy, it sought to impose a homogeneous educational system in which there was no place for the cultivation of ethnic or religious minority identities. All schools were nationalized. Burmese, rather than minority languages or English, was the primary medium of instruction; this caused a decline in Burma's previously high quality of English-language knowledge that hampered communications with the outside world. Missionary schools were shut down, their foreign teachers sent home. Against a background of economic stagnation, the quality of education overall deteriorated. The inadequacies of the education system were reflected in the fact that in Rangoon alone, 1,264 private schools in the early 1980s offered supplementary lessons to students, compared with 113 state-run high schools and 140 state-run middle schools. A common complaint at the time (and thereafter) was that middle and high school teachers took "side jobs" at the private schools to earn extra money and often had little time or energy for their ordinary students.
   After the State Law and Order Restoration Council seized power in September 1988, the situation further deteriorated. Government allocations for education declined, as scarce funds were allocated for rising military expenditures; within Asia, Burma is one of the countries spending the lowest percentage of its GDP on education (1.4 percent in 2003). According to official statistics, in 1994-1995 there were 35,856 primary schools employing 169,748 teachers and educating 5,711,202 students, 2,058 middle schools with 53,859 teachers and 1,390,065 students, and 858 high schools with 18,045 teachers and 389,438 students. UNICEF estimated in 1995 that literacy had fallen to 55 percent of the population (compared to a figure of 82 percent for males and 71 percent for females reported in the 1983 census, the last taken). Dropout rates are high because parents cannot afford to keep their children in school, a situation that is worse in rural than urban areas, and worst in ethnic majority areas near the country's borders. UNESCO reports that 45 percent of Burmese children fail to complete primary education.
   Many if not most teachers, whose salaries cannot cover living expenses, continue to supplement their income by tutoring students on a private basis, either individually or in private cram schools. Fulltime private schools, including those attached to Buddhist monasteries, are emerging as alternatives to the public system for people who can afford them. Also, vocationally oriented schools teaching computer science, business, and foreign languages are becoming popular in Rangoon and other cities, though these are essentially money-making ventures.
   Universal education has been the key to the social and economic development of most Asian countries, and Burma's lack of progress in this area bodes ill for its future.
   See also Education, Higher.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.


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