Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cool Schools on a Hot Day

The amazing weather has continued--bright blue skies, cool air in the shade, blazing warmth in the sun. When the skies are particularly clear and the distant snow-capped mountains are visible (beyond which lay TIbet), it's hard to look away. But the sidewalks here (I'm not sure you can call some stretches that) demand constant attention to where you're stepping, so such dreamy glances are, by necessity, rare lest you trip, fall into a construction ditch, and have to try out their nationalized health care system.

Yesterday's meetings with faculty and staff were intriguing, challenging, fun. It is an impressive thing going on here at RTC, creating a college from scratch, one that runs counter to much of the educational system in Bhutan and, indeed, South Asia. The idea of interactive, engaged classrooms is foreign here, and it is difficult to find faculty who are able to create the kind of classroom environment that we take for granted at Wheaton and Champlain. An ongoing challenge for RTC is recruitment of faculty with that kind of skill set. They recruit from India, where the educational culture is very lecture-based, and from the UK and US, but not in large enough numbers to really influence a shift in the culture. To compound the challenge, Bhutanese students have grown up in schools that are equally rigid, so RTC's mission of developing students who are autonomous agents of their own education, who question authority, who will become active democratic citizens runs counter to what they have been told throughout their lives.

But things are changing. We visited a wonderful school where several of our students are working; Jigme Losal Gross National Happiness School, which enrolls 800 children in grades 1-8. The mission of the school is to teach children the principles of GNH as well as encourage them to question, debate, and look beyond their own homes as a destination. We met Aum Chokhi, the principal, who was thrilled to talk about what they're doing at this school located just off a busy street in Thimphu.

Gross National Happiness is not a clever marketing phrase. It is a way of measuring quality of life in Bhutan. GNH has four "pillars": promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, protection of the environment, and establishment of good governance. The Jigme Singye School embeds all of these values in its curriculum. Aum Chokhi ("Aum" is something close to "Madame") is particularly proud of the way her students learn to make eye contact and ask questions, rather than looking away, ostensibly out of respect, when communicating with others, which is the more common Bhutanese approach.

Throughout the school there are colorful posters with reminders about taking care of the environment, of respecting one another. She says Wheaton students have been a great addition to the staff because they naturally do what she is trying to teach. In fact, she has become quite attached to one of them, Adam, and says "My eyes light up when I see him. So deep is my feeling that I think that in a previous life, we must have had a connection--maybe he was my son."

I watched as a film crew tried to get a group of children to shout a wedding greeting to the King and Royal Bride, and am happy to report that despite the lofty goals of this school, the children look and sound like kids around the world, and are just as difficult to corral.

Back on campus, we ran into the aforementioned Adam, who took some time to explain his gho to Betsy. It's not an easy outfit to put on, but it comes with some nice features, like a pouch that seems large enough to carry books, food and a toddler.

We also ran into another Wheaton student, Nanoko, who was in her kira and posed for us with two of her Bhutanese friends. That's her in the middle:

Today we are off to Punakha with Hyun to get as close to the wedding activities as non-kira'd tourists can get. The sacred ceremony begins at 7 am, so I imagine that the bride and groom are both up, being dressed by countless attendants, and feeling the butterflies one typically feels on one's wedding day.

To be visiting a college that is trying to create something so far from the norm, to be in a country that is trying to figure out how to be a democracy, how to balance integration with the world with preservation of its identity--it's all overwhelming. Betsy and I have often joked about starting a college from scratch. I'm here to tell you: it is not easy. There are so many things to work on that I think the faculty, staff and students suffer from "start-up fatigue." I tried to say encouraging things to all of them, but probably the thing they zeroed in on was this: there are no shortcuts to do what they want to do. Policies can be created in a few meetings, but creating a culture that runs deep enough to be implicit in everyday activities--that will take years and several generations of students. But they will get there. Reliance on Buddhist principles will hopefully provide them with perspective and patience.

One last shot of a local dog, asleep in the middle of the courtyard at Jigme Losal GNH School. He seems to have found his own H:

Off to the wedding! Whoo-hoo! Got my Macarena on already!



  1. The children look just precious. Adam's gho, very interesting. I like the pouch. The young ladies look lovely in their kira and the dog looks like Buster. I can hardly wait for the wedding.

  2. And is Betsy wearing the "Bhutan dress" to the wedding? Sorry you couldn't wear yours too, Lee.

    The concept of start-up fatigue surely sounds familiar! We're always starting something. Is that like, "It's 5 o'clock somewhere?"