Yaccov Hetch knew that the logic of that discourse was devastating. His father, visibly distressed, had told him so in front of the principal of the school that Yaccov, then 16 years old, was determined to leave. “If you leave school you are going to destroy your life”, he had said.
It was very likely that he would turn out to be right. “But I thought to myself: ‘the only thing that I do know is that I am going to destroy my life if I stay in this place”. That is how Yaccov Hecht, a 64 year-old Israeli who many consider to be the founder of democratic education, tells his story. He is now in Puerto Rico offering a talk about that topic at the International Democratic Education Conference, IDEC 2012.
His journey through the school had been unfortunate. “I started to read and write in the seventh grade!” he states. “But imagine: someone is teaching you English, when you still don’t know Hebrew. I would sit in class and I did not understand anything”. That was why he made that decision to leave school at sixteen years of age. “I did not understand why I had to be there”.
He did not really drop out of school. Although Yaccov did as a matter of fact leave the school, at the same time he started to reflect profoundly about education. “From sixteen years of age up to now I have been thinking about what the school is and what it should be”.
En 1987, Yaccov founded the Democratic School of Hadera, in Israel, the first in the world with this philosophy. The idea was not only to get students involved and participating in decision-making in his school. Each one should also be treated as a different and unique person. “The (traditional) school cannot cope with the fact that we are all different. They make a small square and they expect to fit all of their students inside it. But life in that square feels uncomfortable, it’s crammed! They want to divide you into three categories: deficient, average or excellent. It’s a joke! You are excellent inside of the square? The goal of democratic education is to change that, so that people can be excellent in everything in which they can be excellent”.
Following the foundation of that first school, the waiting list grew so quickly that soon there were more than 3 thousand children trying to join the school. Yaccov decided that he had to do something, given that the majority of those students would never get into the school at Hadera. “So, I told them that I would help them to make their own democratic school and did so”. At present, there are 26 democratic schools in Israel. “They are all different, but they are democratic”.
Yaccov went on thinking and one day he told himself: “We should change all of the educational system in Israel. To make it all democratic”.
There are already ten Learning Cities in that country, as the government of Israel has over time become interested in democratic education. Yaccov, in turn, has become a national figure in the field of education. At present, 10% of public schools are in the process of democratization.
“And even now, I still do not know how to read or write well”, jokes Hecht.
Twenty (20) years ago, this leader called for the first International Democratic Education Conference, known today as IDEC. “I called the conference because I felt alone in this, and I was somewhat fearful of feeling that way”.
The meeting also grew dramatically. Each year more supporters joined in and succeeded in ensuring that democratic education became an international concept. The twentieth edition of IDEC is taking place this week in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Yaccov Hecht and other founders of democratic education, such as Ian Cunningham, Amukta Mahapatra, Jerry Mintz and Derry Hannam, will be participating in the conference.