Teaching Happiness: The Prime Minister of Bhutan Takes on Education
In March 2008, after a century of absolute monarchy, Bhutan, a small, Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, held its first democratic elections. Bhutan's transition to a constitutional monarchy (i.e., the king is still the head of state, but the executive and legislative bodies are now democratically elected) has aggravated citizens' concerns about how globalization and modernization might affect Bhutan’s traditional values. The country has long worked to preserve its isolation —it was one of the last nations to introduce television, lifting a ban on the Internet and TV in 1999. The royal government’s response to these concerns has been Gross National Happiness, or GNH, the guiding development philosophy in Bhutan for the last quarter century. GNH attempts to balance economic development, environmental conservation, good governance, and cultural promotion. Bhutan’s first prime minister, Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinley, is now working to radically transform Bhutan’s national education system to reflect GNH values, which he defines as “sacredness, reverence, honour, and respect.”
Here, the Bhutanese prime minister is interviewed by Dahlia Colman, the cofounder of GPI Youth, an international youth program based on the philosophy of Gross National Happiness.
It seems that the current education system in Bhutan, and also in the developed world, pushes a certain set of values designed to promote only economic growth, rather than the values that lead to happiness. How is Bhutan balancing the two?
Well, I belong to the generation of people in Bhutan that had the fortune, in a sense, of having been educated in a traditional way, as well as in the modern education system. In the traditional educational arrangement, values were the main emphasis. The kind of attitudes and the set of beliefs that people developed in this old learning arrangement had a very strong spiritual orientation and a strong sense of ethics. But the modern education system that we have here today, as much as we claim it has been designed to suit our own needs, culture, and environment, is subject to an excessive amount of outside influence in the writing of our curriculum, in the way the education system is structured, and in the way our teachers are trained. When I say “outside influence,” I’m talking about the conventional role and structure of education, both in terms of curriculum and administration, that prepare students for the world of consumerism. One learns how to compete in the real world—the material world—and how to succeed regardless of what the costs may be to one’s own emotions, psychological well-being, and relationships.
So, here in Bhutan, the reason why we are worried is because, if we don’t do something now, we may have too many so-called educated people who would lead, govern, and form the main part of the Bhutanese community and economy, but be guided by a materialistic way of life. If the current education system and curriculum are allowed to continue, then the kind of students that would come out of the schools would be people with values that are indeed quite antithetical to Gross National Happiness principles.
How can you cultivate compassion, wisdom, and awareness through a national education system?
Ultimately, what happens in the schools has more to do with the teachers than with the curriculum or the textbooks. The vast majority of the teachers are Bhutanese, are Buddhists. They understand Gross National Happiness values more than some of us who preach them. All we need to do for the teachers is bring those values at the subconscious level to the conscious level, and let them know that the system will appreciate their imparting these values, their openly practicing and exercising these values, when teaching our children. It will not be easy because, among other reasons, the teacher to student ratio is not very favorable. Especially in some parts of the country, the classroom size is very big, sometimes 50, 60, or even 80 students. The kind of individual attention that is needed will not be possible. It will be difficult, but it can be done. I am very hopeful.
It seems that no young person inherently possesses anti-GNH values. Do children need to be taught to be happy?
Every child, like every adult, wants to be happy in life. But, in this materialistic world, this consumerist society, we are bombarded by messages that seek to increase greed within us, making us want more and more and more. In the modern classroom, nothing much is taught about happiness, generosity, goodness, and humility. And then, when they go home, most of our children, especially in the urban areas, sit in front of the television. And what they see is more of that: the advertisements, the temptations. Parents in the modern world, in modern Bhutan, have less and less time to foster Gross National Happiness values. Now, what we are talking about is at least balancing this trend with good education, with reminders of the more important things that will, in fact, bring happiness. We should help our children realize that what they really want in life, if they ask themselves, is happiness. We cannot stop television, we cannot stop their exposure to commercials, the advertisements to buy this or buy that, but hopefully we will be able to give them a strong dose of the other kind of temptation—the temptation to be good. That’s why if we have good teachers, and we do, they will be able to not so much inculcate values, but bring out the goodness in our children.
Can you give examples of how Bhutan’s schools can promote happiness?
There will be reminders on a daily basis, in all aspects of education, from school administration to sports. For instance, we have morning prayers. These prayers are just recitation of mantras that the children don’t understand or appreciate. But we will now ensure that the chants are well selected and that the children are required to do a little bit of meditation instead of only chanting. Before the meditation, a topic will be chosen and the students will be told about a particular value to follow and practice for that day, and that value will be the subject of the speech delivered by the selected school captain. Each time a student gives a speech, he or she will do research on that subject. While the audience will learn a little about the value being discussed, the speaker will have a far greater understanding, an understanding that will hopefully influence him for his entire life. This was true in my case. I was a school captain and spoke on many subjects during Monday assembly. As for meditation, I think it will condition the school in terms of value orientation for that day. And after the 160 days in the school year, I think the children will have gone through quite a bit of orientation. This will be a big change. Currently, they are not required to do this at all. Teachers, likewise, in their staff meetings should ask, “Which particular aspect of Gross National Happiness should we promote this week?” And also, “How should we assess our own performance and the school’s performance against these values for the week?” And then, at the end of the year, they have their own self-assessment, and the children can do the same thing.