Educating the Happiest Least Developed Country

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SEATTLE — Formal education is key to producing skilled workers to develop and maintain a nation’s workforce and economy. And when considering a holistic yield on investment, a least developed nation is one of the world’s best investors in 2018.

Gross domestic product (GDP) ordinarily measures the gross value of a nation’s labor; it is the total value of goods and services a nation provides during a year.

In Bhutan, a Himalayan state sandwiched between India and China where most people eat what they farm, its citizens cultivate and weigh prosperity through alternative means.

With a GDP of $7 billion in 2017, Bhutan ranks 169th out of 229 nations. Out of 42 least developed nations (there are 47 in total), Bhutan ranks 31st. One-quarter of its population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Bhutan is far from affluent by conventional standards.

Yet, for a nation that instead measures economic output by gross national happiness, Bhutan ranks first among least developed nations and 97th in the world, according to the 2018 World Happiness Report.

The happiest least developed country originated the term gross national happiness. It was established in 1972 by the king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and has nine definitive domains: community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, ecological diversity and resilience, education, good governance, health, living standards and psychological well-being.

Government interest in happiness is no novel concept. It appeared as an edict in 1729, when emperor Zhabdrung Rimpoche said, “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.”

In 2009, Bhutan’s Ministry of Education enacted the initiative Educating for Gross National Happiness. It has transformed classrooms as it enables educators to reach beyond mere academic instruction. Gross national happiness values include ecological literacy, care and concern for others and civic engagement.

The tenets of gross national happiness are fixed in the curriculum such that, at every school level, teachers are required to underscore psychosocial wellness, emotional intelligence and ecology through practicing daily meditation and teaching lessons on conservation and recycling, empathy and compassion.

Such classroom lessons are especially relevant in the happiest least developed country, whose economy is driven by hydropower, agriculture and forestry.

Strategic engagement and communication with students is a focus in public schools. “The way a teacher speaks with the children, the way a teacher behaves with the children, so much so that even while we play games, value is imparted,” says a Bhutanese public school principal.

Education in Bhutan was primarily operated through Buddhist monasteries until 1950 when it adopted Hindi education and later Western-style English, forming its secular public school system.

Although public schools in Bhutan remain nominally non-sectarian, with the integration of cultural immersion in classrooms, there is a Buddhist influence. Buddhism is Bhutan’s state religion, and 75 percent of its nearly 800,000 people adhere to it. Ninety-four percent of Bhutanese students attend public schools.

Gross national happiness concepts do overlap with those of the Buddhist faith. At Neyphug Thegchen Tsemo Monastery, students learn gross national happiness concepts, though it is not formally recognized as such. They are taught Buddhist values in achieving “enlightenment”, synonymous with what a layperson would call “happiness.”

According to a professor at Neyphug Thegchen Tsemo Monastery, “There’s a day where you get this happiness permanently…People should work on the path of happiness in this degenerate time with the little means of compassion and love and kindness.”

The complete pathway of formal education in Bhutan consists of one year of pre-primary schooling, six years of primary, two years of junior high and two years of high school. The happiest least developed country can seize upon Educating for Gross National Happiness to facilitate a “school to happiness pipeline” of sorts.

A structured, state-sponsored pipeline, however, can only be advantageous to those who actually enroll in school and continue their education. While it is inadvisable to solely attribute national happiness to government policy, there is a sizable opportunity for higher marks in a nation where educational attainment is low.

Estimates in 2012 revealed 60 percent of Bhutan is without any formal educational attainment. One in five reached grade eight and an additional one in five see grades nine through 12.

Rural areas are affected the most. The cost of schooling, distance and the need for children to work at home often preclude matriculation to Bhutan’s schools. According to a 2012 Bhutan Living Standards Report, 29 percent of urban dwellers and 54 percent of those living in rural areas have never enrolled in a formal school. Bhutan has only a 53 percent literacy rate.

It is also hampered by teacher shortages, in part due to a reduction of contact hours and a one subject per teacher policy.

In spite of this harrowing educational outlook, the happiest least developed country fortunately has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. GDP growth reached 6.5 percent in 2016 and is projected to grow by an annual average of 11.1 percent between 2017 and 2019.

Considering its education system’s present challenges and unique standards, Bhutan maintains itself as one of the most efficient and intentional nations in investing in happiness, an invaluable asset beyond the grip of monetary purchasing power.

– Thomas Benjamin

Photo: Flickr

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