The Ties That Bind Free Will

Last year the students at the Miftan Erez High School in Herzliya - all of them dropouts from the mainstream education system - met to discuss the annual school trip that had been planned for the North. In accordance with administration's decision, the students participated in the planning of this event: They put together a survey that determined the destinations of the trip, the nature of the activities at night and more. In the vote for the places to be visited, only 30 percent voted for the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness in Tiberias. However, at the school that about 80 youths attend, they did not confine themselves to the students' decisions regarding the nature of the trip and instructed them to consider also the principle of relations between majority and minority: Is it correct, they asked, that the majority will determine the visit's itinerary for the minority?

"The visit to the grave did not suit the majority of the students who are not religious, but the minority asked to consider its desires," relates Adi, a 12th-grader. "Their argument was that they had agreed to all of the proposals that were accepted by the other students and therefore they should now get what they want."

Other students said that the visit to the tomb was important to them emotionally, that it had to do with connecting to their roots, that it was a matter of principle for them and they asked their friends to respect this. In the end a compromise was found: Anyone who did not want to enter the tomb compound visited Tiberias instead.

The discussion of the annual school trip is an example of the kind of dialogue and the ideas they are trying to develop at Miftan Erez in the wake of the work of the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace, which was established in memory of Emil Grunzweig, the Peace Now activist who was murdered in 1983 by a grenade thrown by a right-wing protestor. At the Adam Institute, they are acting toward instilling democratic education, but they are critical of the emphasis given in most democratic schools to the development of the students' individual will. Part of democracy education, say the people at the Adam Institute, must be educating social change and to that end emphasis must be put on the influence of the educational and social environment on individual will. Questions must be raised surrounding this will: How does it come into being? What influences it? Does it conceal other, unfulfilled desires?

At Miftan Erez, all of the students, without exception, participate in a meeting every Sunday. The topics of discussion are varied: from relations between new students and veteran students, through relations between the sexes - at one discussion, for example, the participants learned about the law against sexual harassment - to the planning of the annual party or trip.

Once a week, the principal and his deputy meet with changing representatives of the "discourse committees." The minutes of this meeting are posted in the corridor. The students relate that they have succeeded in leading a number of changes, such as replacing the food that is served at lunchtime and expanding the choice of subjects for the bagrut (matriculation) exams. "So that afterward we will have to make up fewer exams," explains Or, one of the students.

This change has also obliged the teachers to learn to develop: to prepare students to be examined in subjects they had not taught for past matriculation exams. In parallel, discussions are held among the vocational and academic teaching staff and the various care-giving elements. In contrast to other democratic schools, there isn't an exclusive "leading team" here. The democratic conduct at the school influences the students' lives outside of school as well. A., for example, has learned that it is his right to ask the administrators of the boarding facility where he lives to change a punishment he has been given that he finds hurtful; Or has learned to demand of his employers at one of the fast-food chains to pay him as ordained by law; and Adi says that, "We are continuing with this knowledge onward in our lives. This strengthens me, even at home. Because of the stigma attached to the school, they related to me like a retarded little girl. I have learned how to answer anyone who thinks that."

Every school that acts in partnership with the Adam Institute formulates a democratic model of its own that suits it. As compared to the "participatory democracy" at Miftan Erez, at the Yohanani Elementary School, for example, which is also in Herzliya, they decided that it was better for each of the classes, including the special education classes, to choose its representative to the "forum" that convenes once a week. Each time the topic of discussion changes, they also change the representatives. Last week, for example, the 15 representatives to the forum were busy with the question of whether homework should be assigned on Friday. The students debated whether the decision was liable to be harmful to the weaker students, "because this is another opportunity for them to study the material," as one of the students explained, and what would teachers do who teach only once a week, on Friday? One of the students, who supports the decision, offers a new argument in principle: It is also necessary to respect the religious students.

"Not everyone who sits in a group and expresses his desires is really being educated to democracy," says Uki Maroshek-Klarman, the director of the Adam Institute. "Reaching a student's fullest potential depends on the student himself, but also on the social structures within which he acts."

Speaking of the various democratic schools at which there is a focus on the students' individual desires, Maroshek-Klarman says that a focus like that "without the individual being aware of the glass ceiling that determines his desires, is another manifestation of the neo-liberal views that are trickling into the schools."

At the Adam Institute, they relate critically to democratic views like those that have been adopted at a certain school in Bat Yam, where the attempt to create attentive dialogue between a teacher and students is manifested, in part, in an "individual studies contract" that details goals that the student sets for himself and the ways to achieve them. As was published recently in Haaretz, this is a joint program of the municipality, the Education Ministry and the Institute for Democratic Education that has been in place in Bat Yam for three years now and Education Minister Yuli Tamir wants to expand it to other junior high schools around the country.

Maroshek-Klarman emphasizes that the ability to express a personal desire is of value but "it does not necessarily develop the ability of the weaker groups in society to realize their aspirations." She also warns that such a perception is liable to prevent a critical view of reality. "'Airing' feelings does not lead to social change," she stresses.

According to Amitai Lipsma, the principal of Miftan Erez, the unique democratic activity at the school has brought up for the teachers, perhaps for the first time, questions about the characteristics of the students who attend the school and the way students who do not comply with the demands of the mainstream system are dropped.

"At the schools where these students are excluded and cannot express themselves, they take themselves off to the side and slide into violence," Lipsma says. "Today there is very serious discussion about who the children are who should be coming here, for how long, and we also have the possibility of saying that the student should remain in the mainstream system."