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May 25, 2023

Bhutan: Human Flourishing at the Confluence of Old & Modern Meanings of Life with Dr. David Johnson (video)

Tensions between cultural preservation and embracing external influences in Bhutan's education system are complex and require careful navigation.

By Templeton Staff

This recording is from a series of public seminars given by scholars lecturing at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford as part of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) supported project, Education, Purpose and Human Flourishing in Uncertain Times (EPHF). EPHF explores new understandings of education, purpose, and human flourishing through annual convenes and publications.

Intro to the third series

Dr. Johnson begins by describing the program. The third year of the series explores how we might better understand the ‘idea’ or indeed the ‘ideal’ of flourishing, and the importance of education as a pathway to it. Previously, the series has examined a variety of important concepts concerning personhood and society as it relates to flourishing, such as character and virtue, and asked if flourishing lies in the development of these. In the second seminar series, attention was turned to other notions interdependently related to flourishing, specifically the notions of culture and context. The lecturers asked whether and how the development of mind and socio-emotional qualities such as character, virtue, open-mindedness, resilience, and actualization are differently, but no less meaningfully, shaped by history and culture across world contexts. In this third series, scholars ask to what extent we should consider enabling and disabling historical factors in national and international contexts, and point towards examples of collective endeavor and struggle in response to adversity.

In the above video, Dr. David Johnson, Reader in Comparative and International Education, University of Oxford, lectures on human flourishing in Bhutan.

Dr. Johnson's lecture focuses on the impact of history, politics, and modernization on Bhutan's education system. Bhutan's political system has recently changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Bhutan can be described as a "culturally secluded" country. with "distinctly social and cultural ways of learning and patterns by which deeply held values and beliefs are communicated from one generation to another," says Dr. Johnson. "Those who currently study Bhutan maintain that despite a degree of modernization, much of its way of life has remained largely unchanged, even with significant levels of improvement to its physical infrastructure, such as highways."

"How then is Bhutan navigating this pathway," asks Dr. Johnson. He describes his research: "Recognizing that educational change over time is anything but linear, this paper employs a set of metaphors such as advent and consolidation, attraction and adoption, adaptation and indigenization, extension and transformation, and differentiation and concordance to tease out some of the main dilemmas of Bhutan's modernization."

Tensions between cultural preservation and embracing external influences in Bhutan's education system are complex and require careful navigation. Dr. Johnson points out some of the key factors behind this tension, including the following.

  • Bhutan faces challenges in selecting the language of instruction due to the variety of dialects spoken in the country. 
  • The rise of the English language and its impact on local languages and cultural perceptions is a concern for cultural conservationists.
  • Bhutan's education system underwent reforms to align with national development goals and contextualize the curriculum. Bhutan's education system aims to balance the preservation of traditions and the relevance of curriculum to cultural and national values, but there is a debate on the potential trade-off between preserving traditional practices and pursuing national development goals.
  • Bhutan's curriculum modernization efforts include incorporating technology like laptops and tablets to enhance learning.
  • The influence of media, such as television, has exposed Bhutan's youth to global culture and impacted their expectations. The desire for higher education and exposure to universities outside Bhutan has increased among secondary school graduates.

Eric Marshall, Director, Programs in Discovery Science at Templeton World Charity Foundation, attended this lecture and was asked to comment about the expansion of higher education facilities and the growth of more modern secondary schooling in Bhutan. Marshall's research in Bhutan, conducted several years ago, focused on secondary and post-secondary education, particularly in the fields of Science and Technology. His brief comments highlight the importance of values education and open-mindedness, which are key components of the curriculum frameworks in primary and secondary education. He agrees with Dr. Johnson, in that one of the main objectives of these frameworks is ideally to instill a thirst for knowledge while also building a skilled workforce.

Dr. David Johnson, University of Oxford, Reader in Comparative and International Education, and Fiona Gatty, DPhil., Research Project Coordinator and TWCF Fellow in Comparative Education, are Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator of the EPHF Project.