Contra Hecht: A Likelier Success Story for Israeli Democratic Education

I spent most of the day at the IDEC conference in Tel Aviv, and will be going back tomorrow. The first day has already brought up a whole lot of really interesting issues, but I want to address just a small one right now. I want to respond to a claim made by Yaacov Hecht of the Israeli Institute for Democratic Education: that the big secret to Israel’s success in democratic education is the mandatory military service.

Yaacov claims, essentially, that the mandatory military service — which most Israelis enter at 18, but I avoided — has given many Israelis training in being responsible, conscientious, adults. It is true, of course, that many people entering the workforce (or university) at 20-22 years old in Israel possess these qualities. It is also true that these qualities are very important to have in democratic schools.

I will not argue with that (though some arguments come to mind). My point is different.

My point is that if we’re trying to tell a story about how Israel got so many democratic schools, there’s a more plausible story to be told. I discussed this on the way back to Jerusalem with my fellow-alumnus soldier sister and three founding staff members from our school. Here’s what we can come up with together: bad state schools, good laws, lax rule of law, the popularity of change — which Yaacov noted — and the small size of the country.

The first thing that comes to mind, is that the Israeli state school system is a pretty awful place. This is an observation that society has basically accepted, and been discussing, for decades, which helps as well. Alternatives get a lot of attention from exasperated parents and children all over the country. We noticed it right away, and more students first came to us to get away from other schools than came for the ideals of a Sudbury education.

The second thing, which I notice painfully since moving to Germany, is that Israeli law is very permissive about educational experimentation. This is paradoxically a result of the Israeli system being not only tolerant of religious minorities, but especially supportive of the Orthodox Jewish minority in particular. Israeli education law and Ministry of Education procedure is designed to allow religious minorities to run schools with state support and essentially null state supervision. And the same law means democratic schools are absolutely legal — which in many countries in Europe is a distant dream. In most states in Germany, a Sudbury school is literally illegal. This can’t be overstated in explaining the success here: in Israel, democratic schools are simply legal.

The third thing is that the Israeli rule of law is relatively lax. This also works against young democratic schools, because the authorities don’t let democratic schools start despite the fact they are not illegal. But on the other hand, schools that are not yet recognized — and hence illegal — are tolerated by the bureaucracy. In Germany, such schools are fined within a year or two at most and then shut down. The system allows us to run democratic schools long enough to establish them and get them recognized. As you may recall, it took Sudbury Jerusalem no less than seven years.

On top of those, there is a point Yaacov made that I can now unequivocally agree with: Israel is a country in which “change” is a positive concept (and this was true long before Obama popularized it in America). Israel is a young country, everything is new, and society is very interested in new things. Society in Western, Central and Northern Europe is, it seems, generally much less interested in societal change and cultural innovation. People here in Israel eat it right up.

Putting it all together, it also can’t be exaggerated how much Israel’s small size has been important. Democratic education here reached a tipping point that made it a popular and well-known idea, and it was so easy to get there because in a country of 7 million, you just really don’t need so many schools before you become known to everyone in society.

Luckily, I don’t see any country instating mandatory military service to fuel a democratic school revolution. Gladly, progressives in most Western countries are appalled at the military and at the notion of war. But whether or not you accept Yaacov’s theory, I hope I could shed some light on the huge gap between Israel and the rest of the world in adopting democratic schooling. I look forward to discussing this with people later this week at the IDEC.

8 thoughts on “Contra Hecht: A Likelier Success Story for Israeli Democratic Education”

  1. Hi Michael,
    Great points. Thanks for sharing! Did you receive my email with further questions? If not, can you drop me a line asap? Thanks!

    1. Thanks. I did receive your mail and I will try to reply to it by tonight. Classes have just started again and I’m still catching up on my e-mail, but yours is the next in line.

  2. Are all those democratic schools in Israel really democratic?

    What it Takes to Create a Democratic School (What Does That Mean Anyway?) by Mimsy Sadofsky.

    “Note: I was asked to speak, in a plenary session, at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC 2008), in August, in Vancouver, Canada. This article is adapted from that talk.

    The topic that I was asked to speak about tonight was ‘Sustainable Democracy: Creating a Stable Culture in a Democratic School.’ Yesterday, while I was here at IDEC talking to people and making other presentations, I began to realize something that I already knew but didn’t have a way of putting into context. Other people who are here have been talking to me about the same thing. The problem I and others are having is, simply, what do we mean by democracy? In particular, what do we mean by democratic schools? An especially poignant moment for me was when an acquaintance said, after chatting with the incredibly charming group from Korea that is here, that Korea is reputed to have 200 democratic schools, but there is not a single one where children are free from a pre-set curriculum. What do they mean by democratic schools?…”

    “…First of all, as I said, no one knows what the words ‘democratic school’ mean. I could experiment by asking a few of you what the phrase means to you, but I’m not sure it would help that much because I think the ideas would all be so different that we’d just be more confused. So I’ll pretend I don’t think that you have different thoughts than me, and I’ll tell you what I think the essential features of such a school are.

    First, a democratic school must embody what we call in the United States inalienable rights – they’re listed in our Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. are considered the inalienable rights for American citizens. I think that a lot of the free world at this point considers these to be inalienable rights, although it is expressed quite differently in different cultures. Any government in the world, hopefully, but certainly any government of the students in a fully democratic school, is maintained and established in order to ensure those rights. In addition, systems of justice also are established to ensure that everybody in the community has equal rights. That’s not an easy jump. It’s easy to say we want people to have rights, we want democracy, but to understand exactly what the democratic government needs to do, where the government comes into play, is often hard. However, once you find a society, of whatever size, trying to live within the rights we feel all people should have, it becomes quickly clear that a justice system is necessary.

    For me, democracy also implies a really solid determination to treat each human being with complete trust and respect and to ensure the dignity of that human being by not ever, ever condescending to them. I don’t think that’s what everybody means when they talk about democratic schools so I thought I’d get that idea out on the table. I think many schools and groups haven’t sorted through this, and haven’t really gotten past the, ‘Oh yeah democracy, that’ll be wonderful,’ stage….”

    1. Thanks for sharing the article, David.

      I think the number of schools that are “actually democratic schools” is different depending on who you ask. I can certainly think of at least one school I’ve visited in Israel which is not democratic by any reasonable definition but has the word in its name.

      I’ve come to think this doesn’t matter. I mean, on the level of the individual school it’s very important, makes a huge different in people’s lives. But on a national level (or on the continent level, in Europe), it’s not so much a question of how democratic each school is, but of how many schools define themselves as democratic and how accepted they are. If a society accepts democratic schooling in general, that’s a very good thing, because it means people who want to have truly democratic schools can do so. It also means that that kind of intra-school dialog takes place more, with schools discussing how they work and giving each other ideas, and hopefully, in the long run, getting better, more stable democracies. That’s much more difficult to do when your school is say, illegal, or if the bureaucracy is giving you hell and that takes up all of your energy.

      So although the definition of “democratic school” may not be quite right in many schools in Israel, even despite the fact that the process of “democratization” championed by Yaacov Hecht and the IDE will rarely result in a truly democratic school, the fact is that Israel is unique in how many parts of society — and government — are open to democratic schooling. Once democratic schooling is an established part of society, it’s much easier to start talking about how to get it right. In a hostile environment, survival is automatically more important than democracy, and it takes a very large, very conscious effort to prioritize the democratic nature of the school instead.

      1. If you had a school-aged child, Michael (it comes sooner than you think ;) ), would you care more about the number of (bad or mediocre) schools in the country than about the environment — including the rights and the liberties — they would provide him today? In that case, you would neither have society accept true democratic schooling in general, nor a good school for your child. And that’s, in my opinion, very bad both ways. Don’t you think so?

        ~ David

      2. David,
        I’m not sure I follow. At any rate, I will not be able to handle having my children in anything but a Sudbury school, personally (I find other sorts of democratic schools too riddled with arbitrariness). But I don’t think “less truly democratic” democratic schools are not good places to be. I think the people there are generally happy, certainly more than in traditional schools.
        There’s not much one can do about the democracy in schools one is not directly involved in — at least not without in some way or another “forcing” the democracy upon them, which is both undemocratic and generally doomed to fail (at least in achieving democratic schooling). The little that can be done is to write about why exactly certain practices are better than others. And that’s what I try to do. For my own children, I will want to be more directly involved. And I will not agree to a less democratic school than the one I went to, unless I really really have to. :)

      3. People may not think that traditional schools, or even “less truly democratic” ones, are not good places to be, and I agree with you that they might be generally happy in the latter, and certainly more than in traditional schools, Michael. We might even state it as a “reductio ad absurdum,” and we could say that people are happy in concentration camps, and that they don’t think concentration camps are not good places to be. But that is not the point.
        What I care for, and what is really important to me is children not being “indoctrinated” in schools. To me that means freedom — specially freedom of choice. That brings us to democratic schools. The more they respect freedom — the better. Since communities, and society need also law and order, that also brings us to democratic schools. So everything derives from that.
        The problem is not doing something about the democracy in schools one is not directly involved in. The problem is preventing somebody to coerce you in doing what you think is not in your own interest, or even plain wrong in your opinion — as it is frequently done in government schools. So you must prepare your own “infrastructure,” in order that not to happen. And that is what we should be doing.

      4. Yep, I agree. People are often happy in traditional schools, and often miserable after moving to a democratic school and suddenly having to figure out what to do with their time. These are not indications of how good the schools (or systems) are.

        But a lot of people are concerned with their children’s happiness above and beyond concerns for their freedom. This is even more so because most of us have unfortunately gone through schools where our freedom was denied “for our own good”, and it’s only natural to then believe that it’s okay for your kid to be less free when it’s “necessary”.

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