Bhutan’s development as a nation-state is carefully orchestrated through its vision and values. Our country has taken a progressive flight from one of the least developed countries to a developing nation of the 21st century under the wise and farsighted leadership of the Wangchuck Dynasty. The heart of these transformations is buttressed by the national values and cultures as a unifying element of communal strength, social cohesion, national identity and progressive stability. 

The founder of Bhutan’s nation-state, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – was instrumental in establishing a social, religious, cultural and political order based on the Buddhist precepts of discipline, compassion, inclusiveness and equanimity. The practice of tha damtshi ley ju drey and Driglam Choesum has been anchored as the foundational vision of ‘education with character’ in education policies. In modern times, the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to create a fair, harmonious and happy society by underpinning the ideals of improving the physical and mental human condition continues to guide the education policies of Bhutan. 

Drawing inspiration from the GNH, the Education Policies of 1974 and 1984 explicitly emphasised preserving the country’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage and strengthening the traditional values of contributing to national cohesion. Similarly, the Bhutan Vision 2020 document underscores a holistic concept of education that inculcates an awareness of the nation’s unique cultural heritage and ethical and universal values that develop the capacity of young people. Further, the Constitution underscores the state’s responsibility of enhancing well-being and happiness through provisions of knowledge, values and skills with education being directed towards the full development of the human personality. The Education Blueprint of 2014 envisions creating an ‘educated and enlightened society of GNH, built and sustained on the unique Bhutanese values. In recent times, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck reinforced the time-tested values by asserting the education system to embed the Bhutanese youths with a conviction and sense of pride as Bhutanese by grounding them in the country’s history, culture, tradition, and value system. 

These aspirations entrust the education sector to develop sound policies that enable the creation of a knowledge-based GNH society with locally-rooted and globally-competent citizens. This requires a system of education that grooms the citizens to be physically strong, intellectually enterprising, emotionally mindful, and morally upright.  

However, the Bhutanese values interwoven with Buddhist ethics and culture have suffered a sacrificial fate in the face of globalisation and international interests.  The establishment of the Western education model in early 1914 can be attributed to the first influx of foreign ideas in education policies. The economic expansionist policy in the 1980s and 1990s characterised by changing social attitudes amongst the newly educated triggered the promotion of cosmopolitan values. Additionally, the expanding engagements with international development partner agencies and donors have substantially triggered policy changes in Bhutan. 

The New Public Management (NPM) paradigmme developed during the 1980s and founded on result-oriented principles and effectiveness has transformed education into a business-like enterprise hinged upon efficiencies and productivity.  Moreover, the authoritative influence of increasing internationalisation of education governance through global ranking systems has cast a direct impact on educational policies. The less satisfactory the result emerging from international comparisons has been, the more they have affected policy decisions. System-wide, the education sector has adopted concepts such as result-based education, outcome-based education, and competency-based education which has transpired into a culture of competition and meritocracy. Thereafter, education policies have typically strategized on pressuring students and teachers for better performances in high-stakes testing rather than looking at benchmarks for character education. This agenda has threatened the social-democratic principles as educational views have shifted from a notion of public good – central to civil society to a view of public education as a safety net operating in a system characterised by competition, stratification, and marketization. 

These foreign influences have contributed to a decline in the focus on indigenous knowledge and practices in education policies in recent times. The earlier Education Policy Guidelines and Instructions (EPGI) from 1998 to 2000 had a strong emphasis on national values. In almost every edition, Driglam Namzha was highly prioritised as a policy goal. However, in the succeeding EPGIs from 2000 to 2020, a policy focus on Driglam Namzha appears to have lost ground. It is apparent that the Education Policies being reframed within a globalist culture have largely diluted the national consciousness of social responsibility, compassionate considerations, and ethical wisdom that are convergent with the Buddhist precepts and Bhutanese values. 

Faced with the domineering Western influence, the risk of losing the fundamental local value system looms. Hence, as a vehicle for the generational transmission of cultural heritage and a means of ensuring the historical consciousness of the people, there is an urgent need to re-emphasise local wisdom and values through education policy directives. The education policies could reinforce the teaching and practice of Driglam Namzha (discipline etiquettes), Sampa Semkey (unbiased clarity and equanimity of the mind) and tha dam-tsig ley ju drey (sublime statement of genuine commitment to others and the truth of causality or interdependence) as a stronghold of the school systems.  The policies need to provide consideration for the teaching and learning of Namthars (spiritual biography) of legendary figures of the country and the precepts of michoe tsangma chudru (sixteen virtuous acts of social piety) and lhachoe gewa chu (ten pious acts) propounded by the first Druk Desi. Giving life to such local knowledge in the school systems will be a great curricular medium for promoting national consciousness. 

The traditional Bhutanese values not only address individual self-discipline and the conduct of interpersonal relationships but also outline the responsibility of considering the well-being of all sentient beings. An inculcation of those profound local values that uphold principles of interdependence, causal relationships, harmonious living, unity in diversity, sustainability, and goals for happiness would subsequently trigger an unwavering commitment to the tsa-wa-sum and the realisation of a holistic development paradigm of gyalyong gakid pelzom. Revitalising the inculcation of local wisdom and values is also in conformity with the contemporary educational policies and practices of positive psychology education, mindfulness education, sustainable education, emotional intelligence, and well-being education that align with the Buddhist precepts. Therefore, the Education Reform agenda has an opportunity to return to a humanistic form of education that is sensitive to place, materially and spiritually connected to a broad vision of interdependence and modelled on the inclusive, intimate, and caring structure of the social and cultural system of Bhutan.   

Contributed by

Phuntsho Wangdi