Setting the bar high for a life worth living

I read with interest this weekend an article on the Kingdom of Bhutan and the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH).  “A series of hand-painted signs dot the side of the winding mountain road that runs between the airport and the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu. Instead of commands to cut speed or check mirrors, they offer the traveller a series of life-affirming mantras. ‘Life is a journey! Complete it!’ says one, while another urges drivers to, ‘Let nature be your guide’. Another, standing on the edge of a perilous curve, simply says: ‘Inconvenience regretted.’ “


So what does GNH mean for this developing nation?  What it does not mean is making  everyone happy.  The Education Minister of Bhutan regards the concept as a guiding principle which strives to measure the development of Bhutan in a holistic way rather than purely economic.  In policy terms the GNH index is based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and promotion of good governance.


Clearly education is critical to this.  Over the last 20 years nearly 100% of children in Bhutan have been enrolled at primary school where the learning is more than just the traditional diet of subjects.  It is based on “green principles”.  At a primary school in Thimphu, the head teacher, Choki Dukpa, believes that she has seen huge changes in the children’s emotional wellbeing since GNH principles were integrated into the education system four years ago.   “The idea of being green does not just mean the environment, it is a philosophy for life,” says Dukpa.  “An education doesn’t just mean getting good grades, it means preparing them to be good people.  This next generation is going to face a very scary world as their environment changes and social pressures increase. We need to prepare them for this.”


This is a powerful voice from the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, so far away from us in many ways and so far ahead in others.  Compare this with the values in our society.  Are we valuing the right things, valuing what makes a child a good person?  This is the elephant in the room for education policy makers.  Whilst the folk at the Department of Education dash around serving the Minister, I cannot help but think that there is more than a hint of fiddling while Rome burns.  In addition to being transformed exponentially by a technological revolution, our society faces extraordinaryenvironmental challenges and let’s not forget the riots which spontaneously ripped a hole in our social cohesion last year in many urban areas of our country.  


How to address the issues which young people will have to grapple with in the future, in our schools today, appears to be an intractable problem.  However schools can, and I believe many do, foster a positive sense of self and a belief that our young can thrive in our future of unknowns.  We have no Gross National Happiness index to underpin the values espoused in schools.  But as educators we can nevertheless affirm a spirit of community where young people are encouraged to contribute, draw strength from each other, rising to the many challenges which present themselves every day.


Standards do matter.  But standards are about far more than a grade or a certificate.  We must set the bar high for young people to live a life worth living.  Rather as the children of Bhutan are being inspired to be expansive in their educational development, so too should we strive for this holistic approach.  Our children deserve nothing less.



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