Educating for Gross National Happiness
First Principals’ Workshop
Keynote Address: Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley
Paro College of Education, 21 January, 2010
Honourable Minister, Aum Secretary, School Principals, Education College Lecturers, and Dzongkhag Education Officers of the Kingdom of Bhutan:
I am genuinely privileged to be with you this evening. Far from words, I sincerely hope to embark with you this evening, as true partners, on a journey that is absolutely essential if we are to fulfil the vision of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and His Majesty the King, and if we are to realize the destiny and potential of our beloved country.
I would go so far as to say that no one else in the country is as well and uniquely positioned to fulfil that noble aspiration as the people in this very room. You truly hold the golden key in your hands. I cannot honestly say that to any other audience in this land.
My friends, the truth is that we are in trouble — deep trouble. Our little country, — once so blissfully isolated in a remote corner of the Himalayas, seemingly protected by high mountain peaks, wisely and peacefully governed by a lineage of great enlightened monarchs, — is now buffeted by powerful forces we could not have imagined or conceived just a generation ago. Though some have brought benefit, those powerful forces are not always benign, and some of them threaten not only our profound heritage but even our lives and land.
To cite just a few examples: Carbon spewed into the atmosphere in Los Angeles, London, and Sydney is causing our Himalayan glaciers to melt so that we are faced with potentially devastating glacial lake outbursts that can destroy entire communities in our fertile valleys. This is not theory. It’s started to happen! And we know that, as this glacial melting continues, it is not only our own lives and livelihood in Bhutan that are threatened, but those of the billions of people downstream — nearly half the world’s population that depends on our Himalayan rivers.
But it is not only overwhelming physical forces like climate change that we now face. Equally, if not more, powerful and threatening are mental and psychological challenges of which our parents never dreamed, and which underlie and drive the physical changes our earth now faces.
I am speaking of course, of the seemingly relentless materialist and consumerist greed and ambition that is destroying communities, Indigenous peoples, and the planet’s most precious natural resources worldwide. You well know that we are not immune from that force that is rapidly taking over the minds and lives of our own people as surely as it has already consumed the lives of young and old globally. We can see it everywhere:
I remember rather nostalgically how — not so long ago — the road to the Dzong where I work was brimming with people walking to and from work in the mornings and afternoons, cheerfully chatting and socializing. Going to work was a joyful ritual of social interaction — an opportunity for making and nurturing friendship. They’re mostly gone now, replaced by cars, a status symbol, burning the very fossil fuels whose combustion is melting our glaciers. Those who walk now see themselves as ‘have-nots’.
The sad thing is that even those who want to appear well off by owning a car very often cannot afford it, and take out large loans that expose themselves and their families to unnecessary risks. A recent survey here in Thimphu found that 75% of those who drive to work do not drive more than 3 kilometres — the minimal daily walking distance considered essential for good health.
And I see this new force most profoundly in changes in attitudes and values — in an ever narrower and self-centred ambition, concern with financial success, and lack of respect both for nature and for others. Much of this may have been inherited from outside through advertising, the internet, television, and other media, but this materialist ethos now increasingly pervades our own society, and it is visible in a thousand ways……. You know exactly what I mean, and you can see it in the students in your own schools and all around you.
These and other highly questionable changes are happening at a dizzying rate. Indeed, it is truly frightening to see how rapidly this ethos has grown from just a few years ago.
I have often thought that one of our greatest strengths as Bhutanese is our remarkable adaptability. But that adaptability may also be our undoing if we adapt too readily to external forces that can destroy us. Indeed, unless we return to our common roots and values, and unless we discover together the true meaning of Their Majesties’ vision and their understanding that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”, then our country’s unique and balanced development path will surely falter, and our very existence as a nation may be threatened.
Indeed, we are in trouble, and so is the world, and we should be scared — not so much by the journey on which we are embarking together this week — but rather by what will happen if we don’t!
I don’t mean to depress you in the midst of a wonderful week about Educating for Gross National Happiness. But I need to say all this, because I am convinced that it is only through a genuine and far-reaching change of consciousness — and by returning consciously to the wisdom and vision of our beloved Fourth Druk Gyalpo a quarter century ago — that we in Bhutan will not be swallowed by the frenzy of greed, consumption, and environmental degradation that has gripped the world. Education is the key and likely the only means through which that essential change of consciousness can occur.
In fact, as I mentioned to the international educators who joined us last month, education is literally the glue that holds the whole notion of Gross National Happiness together, and it is the most essential path to the realization of that vision.
· If we are ignorant of the natural world, how can we effectively protect it?
· If we don’t know that smoking, junk food, and physical inactivity are unhealthy, how can we have a healthy citizenry?
· If we are ignorant of politics and of national issues, how can we cast an informed vote and have a healthy democracy and good government?
· If we are ignorant of the extraordinary teachings of Guru Rinpoche, Zhabdrug Ngawang Namgyal, and other great masters who taught and practised right here in Bhutan, how can we appreciate our legacy, embody our own profound culture, and serve the world?
Every pillar and domain of Gross National Happiness literally depends on good education.
We have no time to waste in embarking on this journey. Indeed, it is precisely the incredible speed with which self-centred materialism is taking root that engenders my sense of urgency about seeing GNH principles, practices, and values embodied quickly and without delay in our educational system.
I started with the Bad News! Now for the Good News! And that good news is perfectly expressed on the back cover of your delegate books — in a splendid quote from His Majesty’s recent speech in Delhi. There, His Majesty said just last month:
“GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future…. Our foremost priority must always remain the happiness and wellbeing of our people — including the generations to come after us…. GNH is development guided by human values…. I am confident that the noble goal of Gross National Happiness will be key to Bhutan’s success in maintaining our unity and harmony — indeed our character as a nation.”
And that wonderful statement should immediately dispel any worry any of you might have about whether we can do it, how we can do it, and what it all means. In His Majesty’s words, GNH is simply “development guided by human values.” And because we are all human, we actually know what we need to do and how to do it. And we already have — right in our own hearts and minds — all it takes to bring GNH successfully into our education system. It’s just a matter of reaching into our own hearts, and into our essential human-ness, to discover exactly what we need to do to bring GNH effectively into our schools in every corner of this land.
In fact, many of you are already doing it — beautifully! I have met and hear splendid stories of principals who have created an atmosphere of true respect, warmth, and delight in their schools just by treating teachers and students with genuine dignity and esteem, and by valuing each one’s unique contribution to the school community. I have personally witnessed and hear wonderful stories of schools generously serving their communities, protecting the natural environment, and using positive rather than punitive discipline to create harmony. You have so much to learn from each other this week just by listening to and sharing what already works in your schools from a true GNH perspective.
So bringing GNH into the education system has nothing to do with adding a new subject. Rather, it is about how we can enrich all our learning, and give it a heartfelt and genuine context, purpose, and meaning. That will make the curriculum and learning more enjoyable, more pleasurable, and much more relevant. When we’re not clear why we are teaching something, it quickly becomes boring and irrelevant for students. Infusing GNH understanding gives both teachers and students a sense of meaning and purpose that makes study much less burdensome, much more enjoyable, and directly relevant to all our lives. And so, there is no doubt in my mind that our journey together in the coming years in bringing GNH fully into our schools will be a truly joyful one!
Of course, we can always go deeper, and in the next months and years, we certainly will — discovering how we can bring GNH principles, practices, and values into specific disciplines like math, science, language, and history, into sports and arts, and into assessment and the school ambience in general. You are already exploring methods and practices in all these areas during this week. But the fundamental starting point for all of us is that human-ness and humanity of which His Majesty spoke in Delhi. And it is that which gives us the confidence and determination to be the change we want to create in our schools, and to embody in our own actions and behaviours what we want to see in our teachers and students.
In all honesty, I have to confess that we perhaps lacked some of that confidence when we first envisioned and embarked on our Educating for GNH path last year. And so we invited to Thimphu some of the world’s top educators from 16 countries in fields like holistic education, eco-literacy and sustainability education, contemplative education, critical thinking, and Indigenous knowledge — all approaches to education that we felt were highly consonant with GNH principles and values. Last month, we had an amazing and wonderful week-long dialogue with these renowned scholars, authors, educators, and heads of eleven leading schools.
What we learned gave us the confidence to launch this Educating for GNH initiative without hesitation, and quickly to call you all together here in Paro so that we could implement it without delay. Above all, we learned that all the international educators without exception deeply shared our own aspiration and vision, and in fact looked to us to set an example that they want to see applied nationally in their own countries. What they shared with us gave us the confidence to know we are on the right track, and the courage to proceed.
No less than us, our international visitors want to see school graduates who are genuine human beings; realizing their full and true potential; caring for others; ecologically literate; contemplative as well as analytical in their understanding of the world; free of greed and without excessive desires, knowing, understanding, and appreciating completely that they are not separate from the natural world and from others; — in sum manifesting their humanity fully. And they communicated passionately their own deep concerns that the present educational systems in their own countries were turning out economic animals who measure their success by money, career, acquisition, fame, power, and self-promotion.
One of the international educators — lamenting how conventional science education was producing technological wizards with ever greater capacity to exploit rather than conserve nature — remarked: “It is not scientifically illiterate people who are destroying the world. It is the most scientifically literate.” Something, they told us, is deeply wrong in the way science is taught. Surely a GNH-infused science approach will nurture the most deeply felt ecological consciousness, just as a GNH-infused math curriculum will teach students to spend wisely to meet their true needs rather than to satisfy the endless desires stimulated by advertisers.
The support and encouragement we received from our renowned international visitors was so strong and unequivocal that we knew we could and had to act, and their advice was so concrete and practical that we knew we had the means and resources to do so effectively.
But what was equally clear last month was that if we were going to launch this rocket, we had to land it. And you, my friends, are the only ones with the means to land this rocket effectively, by bringing it down to earth in the most practical way in your own schools. So we knew last month that we completely depend on you for this initiative to succeed.
That’s why I started out by saying that the fulfilment of my dream depends entirely on you, and it’s why I have waited so long for this moment and for this precious opportunity to work with you to bring GNH fully and properly into our educational system.
There is one thing I know clearly about this journey on which we are about to embark. And that is that we are entering uncharted territory and we are therefore going to make lots of mistakes. While individual schools have been created on the basis of GNH-type principles and values in different parts of the world, no country has ever tried to do what we are setting out to do on a national scale.
The eyes of the world are literally on us, and — while our immediate concern is what to do in our own schools, as it should and must be — we should also be fully aware that what we are now doing has huge significance for the world. No country has ever attempted to do even what we are doing this very week and in the next three weeks — to bring together all the country’s school principals with a mission anything like this. The international educators who came here last month told us very bluntly that what we are doing reflects their own deepest aspiration and that they will stand with us in full support as we proceed.
But it is precisely because there is no road map for us to follow that we will and must inevitably make mistakes. We will try things that sound good but don’t work. But I also know that we will learn from every mistake we make and from each other, and that the challenges will be at least as important and productive as the success stories.
I think our only motto as we set out on this journey is “Be Brave”. We can only move forward if we dare to try things out, if we dare to stumble and fall, and if we pick ourselves up with a little more understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
But we will not be travelling blindly on this path. By the end of this week, you’ll already have picked up many practical ideas and suggestions of what you can do in your schools to get started. And we certainly don’t expect this single week together to be more than a start, and an opportunity to begin to immerse ourselves in what it might mean to bring GNH more completely into our schools. Over the next two years, we will develop specific materials, activities, and texts that will give you further and more detailed guidelines on creating GNH-infused schools. So we won’t simply leave you stranded without resources.
At the same time, I’d like to ask you earnestly please to view this first step as an invitation to express and put into action what is already deeply in your hearts. Too often, I think, we have just asked you to focus on your administrative functions as principals. Now we are inviting you to express and implement in your own schools your own deeper passion for education, for our profound and ancient culture, for our beautiful natural environs, and for our King, country, and people — in short our innate and self-existing passion for the human and ecological values of Gross National Happiness.
None of this will be at the expense of academic excellence, and I want to repeat that what we are discussing is not a new subject or extra burden on you. That has to be said, because I know that you and your teachers are already working so incredibly hard. If we do it right, bringing GNH into our schools will, over time, suffuse their atmosphere with such joy and mutual sense of purpose, that principals, teachers, and students will eagerly look forward to each day they spend together. Every school day will be suffused with such meaning and goodwill and pleasure in learning that our GNH-inspired school ambience and activities cannot help but lighten what we currently experience as burden.
Maybe the ultimate test, as I mentioned to our international visitors last month is that our GNH graduates — and those who teach them — will sleep soundly and happily at the end of each day knowing that they have given all to their families, to their students, to their communities, and to the world. If we and our young do not have this firm commitment, there is literally no future. In the end, our GNH-educated graduates, teachers, and principals will have no doubt that their happiness derives only from contributing to the happiness of others. And every school day will deeply reflect that understanding.
Having said something about the why and the what of bringing GNH into our education systems, let me say just a few words about the how that you are exploring practically this week. Each one of your five themes this week has a practical purpose:
· Joining the contemplative and analytical modes of learning not only reflects the profound wisdom of our own ancient culture and thus strongly supports the cultural pillar of GNH. It has also now been scientifically proven that the mindfulness meditation taught by such greater masters as Guru Rinpoche markedly improves concentration and learning. I sincerely hope that the introduction to these ancient practices that you receive this week is just the beginning of a process that will enter our school systems and our students’ lives deeply and meaningfully over time.
I think you have all had a taste of this potential just in the five minutes of silence that bring you all together each morning and end each workshop day. By helping us to let go just a little of the myriad self-concerned preoccupations that habitually clutter our minds, those few minutes enhance our listening and ability to hear each other, unify us in a common endeavour, and give us the confidence to know we are not totally controlled by our thoughts but are truly masters of our own minds.
And likewise, just a few minutes of contemplation and meditation at the beginning and end of a school day or of a ceremony, ritual, class, assembly, or even sports event can change and deepen the atmosphere on the spot, and bring instant connection with the inner joy that is the essence of GNH. And we are learning this week methods on how to bring that mindfulness practice into all the normal activities of a school day.
This week, in short, we are learning personally how to connect directly with these ancient teachings and wisdom that are such a precious part of our heritage, and we are practising it! And through your own direct experience and practice, and the empowerment you received this week from Venerable Yangbi Lopen, you are now fully empowered to bring this mindfulness practice into all our country’s schools. No country in the world has ever tried to do anything like this!
· Second, you have received just a tantalizing taste of how GNH principles and values can be brought directly into all our curricula. Some had told us that they understand how GNH values might be reflected in choice of literature or in the way history is taught, but that it is hard to conceive of GNH-inspired math! So we took that particular challenge to demonstrate how we can effectively teach all mathematical functions in our current textbooks — from simple arithmetic all the way through to algebra and calculus — in a completely GNH-inspired way.
Those techniques, using simple household budgeting exercises, are not only excellent training for the economic and livelihood dimensions of GNH but also teach the difference between needs and wants and point to the social and environmental benefits and costs of economic activity that are at the root of a GNH-infused economy.
And if we can do all this with some simple math exercises, we can surely do it with all curricular content. What you experienced this week is just the beginning!
· And of course we are recognizing this week that classroom and textbook teaching is only one form of learning. Students learn as much if not more from the school ambience and atmosphere, from serving their communities, from the way they engage in sports and in arts and cultural activities, and from how they learn about, abide by, and participate in shaping the standards and rules that make their schools into living communities. That training in classroom citizenship may be the best possible support for the good governance pillar of GNH.
· And to emphasize that none of this is even slightly at the expense of academic excellence, we have devoted one session this week to a simple example of how we might teach our students to think clearly, develop sharp minds, and read with discernment. If our students are not to be taken in by the deceptions of advertisers and by the barrage of self-centred materialist and consumerist messages with which they are bombarded daily, they have to be able to discern the truth from the chaff. And they have to be able to judge their leaders and politicians with that same critical discernment.
We just demonstrate that briefly this week with a simple analysis of media reporting. The message is simple — a GNH graduate is not only good-hearted and caring, but also deeply intelligent, sharp, and discerning.
· And finally, we cannot claim a GNH-infused educational system so long as our students are judged by one narrow criterion alone — their performance on competitive standardized exams that frequently create excessive stress, and that often leave students who don’t make that particular grade feeling like failures. This week, we’ll discuss how we might properly acknowledge the unique talents and contributions of each and every student — whether academic, in the arts and music, in manual dexterity, or in their generosity, care and help to others.
And I have suggested that we might devote a short time on the Friday afternoon of each school week to quiet and written self-reflection through a GNH lens: How have we related to individuals, our class, our school, our families, and our communities in the past week? What might our GNH-inspired aspirations be for the following week? Such forms of assessment and self-assessment more in line with GNH principles and values will be on your agenda later this week.
Those five themes — mindfulness practice, bringing GNH into curricula and into the broader learning environment, sharpening our intellect and analytical abilities, and looking at broader assessment issues through a GNH lens — are just being introduced this week from a GNH perspective. We could clearly have intensive in-depth workshops and training sessions on any aspect of any one of those areas. For example, I think you already got a sense that we could easily devote a full week just to exploring how math can be taught in a GNH-inspired way.
So I want to assure you that this week is just the beginning of a path that will go ever deeper, generate ever more practical materials, methods, and resources, and hopefully last our entire lives.
If we succeed even partially in this endeavour, I promise you that our precious country and our educational system in particular, will quickly become a focus of attention for educators everywhere. The really good news is that — in the midst of unspeakable global environmental degradation, aggression, poverty, and materialism — there is an equally powerful and growing yearning for sane alternatives.
The increasing attention that GNH is getting globally is almost embarrassing when we reflect how far we have to go in putting GNH principles into practice. But this attention to our little country also points to a growing global awareness of the futility and destructiveness of our dominant consumerist and materialist growth ethic and to the desperation with which the world is seeking a new way forward. How extraordinarily fortunate we are that our beloved Fourth Druk Gyalpo had the incredible wisdom and foresight to recognize and understand a quarter century ago that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
Now our job is simply to realize his vision in practice and turn his understanding into action. And until we do so decisively, we are not worthy of the world’s attention nor can we rightly be a focus for its hopes. There is absolutely no better place to begin the transformation that is needed than with education — simply because every aspect and domain of GNH requires knowledge and understanding for its realization; because only through education can we bring about the deeper change in consciousness that must be at the root of all actions for a better world; and because, as our Majesties continuously remind us, the future of our country lies firmly in the hands of our young.
It is because of this action imperative, and because bringing GNH fully into your schools is the key to turning GNH into action nationwide, that the most important part of your week’s activities here in Paro is certainly the last day. On that day, you will consider very practically how you can best bring GNH values, practices, and principles into your own schools. That is when — based on all you have heard and learned this week — you will propose your own action plan that can effectively bring GNH into your particular school according to your own skills, means, conditions, and circumstances.
Immediately following these principals’ workshops, we’ll work out a good plan to stay in touch with you all, to share what is working and what is not, to provide you with support in this endeavour, and to go deeper in preparing the materials, activities, and resources you need to make your schools truly GNH-inspired communities.
And now let me end where I began. In all this, you in this very room are the key to success. That is not rhetoric. It is literally true that only you have the power and capacity to turn our shared vision into action in every school and classroom in our country. Just imagine the power of a simple action. If each one of you were to make a pact with your students and staff never to drop a single piece of litter in the school compound, you would very quickly change the face of this land. Adults will immediately become too embarrassed to drop litter anywhere when their own children are setting such a shining example of care for nature.
I am not exaggerating when I say that your collective power in this regard far exceeds mine. In the past two years, I have to admit that I have learned the hard way about the limitations of my own particular job. Whatever intentions and aspirations I may have for our country, whatever legislation we pass in the National Assembly, whatever rules and regulations we promulgate, in the end all depend entirely on others to carry out, implement, practice, and turn into action.
That’s what I meant at the beginning when I said that we are full partners in this journey, and it’s why I am truly honoured and privileged to be embarking on this journey with you. I mean that quite literally. Personally, I have always believed that maintaining GNH as the guiding light of our country and as our National Conscience — as His Majesty recently put it in his Delhi speech — depends entirely on bringing GNH principles, practices, and values into our education system. But regardless of that long-held dream and aspiration, I simply cannot make it happen without you. In fact, the realization of this dream and the success of this endeavour depend entirely on you!
And that’s also what I mean when I say I have waited a long time for this moment. Finally, the time is right, the circumstances are right, and the moment has come. And we are truly partners in what must be the noblest possible endeavour on which we can embark. I feel very close to you at this moment, and deeply grateful to be here with you.
If we work together as a team — all our principals, teachers college lecturers, and district education officers, with the full support of the Ministry and Royal Government of Bhutan — I am confident that it will not be long before any citizen or any visitor, simply stepping onto the grounds of a school anywhere in the Kingdom of Bhutan, will immediately feel and experience Gross National Happiness in action.
I wish you the best for a wonderfully productive, enjoyable, and fruitful week together, and I truly look forward to seeing your proposed action plans in a few days and to following your progress over the next year with intense interest and with all the encouragement I can give. We could not be gathered for a nobler purpose and we could not be serving Their Majesties, our country, our people, and especially our children in a better way than what we are doing together this week. Thank you all!