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.