The Saturday Syndrome!

I was fairly new in my chosen field of teaching, having recently ditched the all-time favourite foreign ministry prize that was exclusively reserved for those who topped the competitive civil service officers’ selection examination in those days. But I was old enough to be deeply troubled when the government announced that the existing half-day office attendance on Saturday was done away with for civil servants. Though a conspicuous part of civil service, teachers were out of the loop!

My misgiving emanated not from missing the half-day break at the fag-end of a heavy teaching-week; it arose from the fact that Bhutan then had a long…long way to go in the journey of nation-building. There was so much to do. And, somehow, in the deep recesses of my being, it didn’t feel right that we should help ourselves to two full days of holiday when the need of the hour was to enlist every single moment to the big task ahead of us.

But, that was in the last century. And, I am reminded time and time again that we should graduate to the 21st century and that we should measure up! What hasn’t changed though is the fact that the process of nation-building is still work in progress.

Saturday has gained unprecedented pre-eminence of late. As the new academic session gets underway, the country has been treated to a growing cacophony of claims and counter-claims arising from the fact that the youngest member of the week happened to bolster a tempting election agenda not so long ago.  

But, by all means, if it was a pledge made with honour, why not fulfil it with honour and dignity? It is sad that our teachers have been made to ask for and justify what might have been taken for granted based on the assurances given to the largest segment of the civil service by far.

The cardinal sin, to be sure, is not with Saturday or any other day, with syllabus-coverage or campaign pledges. The fatal fault lies with the populist brand of Democracy, as it is understood and practised around the world today!

Even as the so-called established democracies have shown us, this novel system is not for the vulnerable or the weak. Authentic democracy takes tremendous discipline, self-discipline that is; it takes self-respect; it takes integrity, above all. A deep sense of responsibility, genuine mutual respect, and conscious self-discipline are the basic tenets of Democracy, worth the name.

As I have often submitted, to little avail, Democracy is, in essence, about empowering the people. And, it does so by calling up and engaging the true virtues of the citizens – their capacity for honour, their sense of right and wrong, and indeed the strength of their character. Empowerment comes from being able to invoke one’s ability to distinguish the genuine from the seductive.

In popular practice, however, for all the good that it does, Democracy often ends up by dis-empowering the citizens – by invoking their vulnerabilities, their capacity for greed and gullibility, by whetting their appetite rather than building on their capacity for self-respect and contentment. Hence, the relevance of my Triangle of Parliamentary Integrity!

This is a tall order. But, the issues at hand are no less vital than the integrity of our institutions and the long-term well-being of our nation as indeed the future of our children. Governance is an act of faith. If Democracy obliges the stakeholders to be hungry where there is no hunger and thirsty where there is little thirst, surely, such a system is rank unsustainable.

It was painful to hear, not long ago, of an important public figure confess the unconscionable: “In politics, we often have to tell lies”! As shocked and stupefied as the sensitive audience was, the alleged statement was not just an innocuous utterance provoked by the temper of the moment. It was unfair at best and unfortunate at worst.

As a fledgling Democracy, if we are not mindful in our public pronouncements and personal actions, we run the risk of giving the impression to the people that it is alright to dispense with the truth to achieve one’s end. And, once people lose faith in the leaders and the system, they will lose hope. A society without hope cannot last!

Beyond individuals, beyond parties, beyond the government, there is the country, there are people, there are vital institutions, and there is the future. That is why every time we enact a law or introduce a policy or seek an expedient course to fulfil a short-term goal, we need to do some deep soul-searching and examine how our actions could impact the larger interests of the country and the well-being of the people.

Back to Saturday! As we have seen, when it comes to education, every second person, whether initiated or uninitiated, becomes an expert in the myriad nuances and subtleties of this incredibly complex realm of public service. And, for legitimate reasons, perhaps! Everybody has a stake in it and wants to be heard, however inaudible some voices may often be.

In my long and deep engagement with the Noble Sector, I don’t remember ever hearing any of my fellow-teachers asking for a Saturday off. But, then the politicians came along and called out: “Vote for me and I will give you Saturday off”! And, with yet more goodies for their clients, often out of proportion to the country’s capacity to make them available, and some beyond the bounds of ethical practice!

The fact is that not many people really understand what it takes to be a teacher, and what truly is the nature and role of education, in the larger scheme of things. As an old-school teacher myself, I know how inherently demanding and draining teaching can be. And, how utterly thankless it often is!

This is the bottom-line, for whatever one may like to think: With or without Saturday Off, teachers invariably work seven days a week keeping the interest of the children and their future uppermost in their mind – in private as in public, often sacrificing their own well-being and the welfare of their family to a bigger cause.

In these extremely challenging times, it is unfair for me to expect my fellow-educators to do what I used to do at Sherubtse a long time ago: work seven days a week, anywhere between 10 and 15 hours a day, often taking more classes than my colleagues, apart from handling the dreaded responsibility of the vice principal with all the associated campus maintenance works and community out-reach tasks, often constraining my friends to ask if I was getting three salaries for what I was doing!  And, I gave more to the RTC than to my family and took it to the next level!

All these would sound like a lie today.

Operating in this complex field called education, teachers’ work follows much the same progress as that of the artist: they begin by taking the world as it is but end by suggesting an image of the world as it ought to be – more beautiful, more fulfilling, and more edifying!

This search for the ideal world and a more fulfilled life is the true incentive for teachers to keep going from day to day, year after year. The children in their charge are the image of that future.

When the realities of the workaday world clash with their vision of the ideal world, the heart of the teacher breaks into pieces and their imagined universe falls apart. The world doesn’t understand the delicate yearnings of a teacher’s heart.

It takes tremendous personal courage and deep faith to balance the competing calls of the drab domesticities of the real world and secure the vision of the ideal.

For now though, I am confident that the government and the concerned agencies will work out a happy conclusion to the vexed issues at hand and move on, being mindful of the fact that a society that hurts its teachers jeopardises its future.

Let’s face the fact: If education succeeds, no nation can fail. Education failing, no nation can succeed. A nation-defining public sector like Education must remain above politics, and the nobles of the Sector Noble, the relevant constitutional bodies as indeed all stakeholders ought to be wiser.

As an educator, I am a man of faith and of hope. I truly believe in a Better Druk Yul. As a matter of fact, a major part of my life, spanning the glorious reigns of three of Bhutan’s greatest Monarchs and the auspicious birth of our future King, has been dedicated to advancing just such a cause.

Going forward, it is my hope and prayer that a Better Druk Yul will be more inclusive, inspiring and just. This is the only Bhutan we have. We need to do better and build greater trust, harmony and goodwill to realise the farsighted vision of our beloved King for a Bhutan of our dreams.

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Humble reflections of a concerned citizen…

Thakur S Powdyel

Former Minister of Education

  Author: As I Am, So Is My Nation.

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