As in medieval Europe, most early Thai scholars were clerics whose major monastic activity was to teach the unlettered. Behind the quiet facade of monastic life, many village boys learned the rudiments of reading and writing Thai and Pali, simple arithmetic and the Buddhist precepts. Education was primarily concerned with ethical and religious instruction. Because most early Thai literature concerned religion, literacy allowed greater participation in religious life.

Although the Department (later Ministry) of Education was founded in 1887, monasteries remained centers of basic education until nationwide primary education became compulsory in 1921. In many remote areas today, monks conduct daily classed for village children.