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In Defense of Amish Education

Photo: Amish parochial school in Indiana.

I've been getting more comments lately about Amish education (or lack thereof) and I think it's probably because Lovina's children are getting older and Lovina is writing about the winding down of their formal schooling.  Elizabeth, 16, is now done with her formal education and her younger sister, Susan, is in her final year.  The following comment was posted by MC Valentine on amishcookonline last night that I thought I would move it to this spot for discussion here and on Facebook.  My take on it is below the bold-face:

I have enjoyed The Amish Cook column, and marveled at the hardworking family as well as their resilience during the recent sorrows they have suffered.  The appeal of the Amish way of life and of retreating from much of modern culture is understandable, at least to some extent. 

However, each of the last two columns contained information that is troubling to me.  Susan has completed her formal education at the end of 7th grade  --  she just turned 14 years old.  Surely, with less than an elementary school education, there is so much of God's beautiful creation she does not have the education to even begin to comprehend. 

Elizabeth suffered a similar fate, unfortunately.  She is now 16, and her education ended two or three years ago -- she spends her days cleaning other people's houses and cooking, cleaning and gardening at home.  Now she has a special friend, Tim.  Does this mean that at age 16, her future has been determined for her -- she is already intended to marry into a life of never ending manual labor? 

Is it not possible that these girls deserve an education?  An insistence on old fashioned ways does not necessarily exclude an education.  Boys and yes, in some instances girls, too, have enjoyed the richness of education for hundreds of years. 

The abrupt and early end to education for girls is, in my opinion, a sad fact of the Amish way of life, at least as it's portrayed in this column.

 First of all, I don't want to make this a "girls get less" discussion because Amish boys also end their education at the eighth-grade level.  On MC Valentine's larger point as to whether Amish youngsters in general are missing out....SIGH....I am sympathetic to MC Valentine's comments.  Really, on many gut levels, I AGREE with MC Valentine  I mean, my gosh, Elizabeth is a brilliant, bright young woman who would probably blossom in a collegiate environment where she could study Aristotle and algebra.  BUT - and this is the thing to remember - this is THEIR culture and religion.  None of us get to choose what circumstances we are born into.  The Amish are a unique, complex, rich thread in the tapestry of America's diversity.  The Amish have generally decided that expanded formal education does not further their cultural and religious aims. Young Francophones born in Quebec surrounded by English-speaking Canada are probably at some entrepreneurial disadvantage, but if Quebec gave up its French, a huge element of what the Canadian Supreme Court has declared to be a "distinct culture" would be lost.  If Amish teenagers started attending university, one could make a compelling case that their agrarian, home-based church culture would be lost to fancy cars, computers, and an 8 to 5 capitalist grind.  Young people can choose to leave and so long as they aren't baptized into the church, they don't face formal shunning.   The US Supreme Court upheld the Amish beliefs about limited formal education in their landmark 1972 case Yoder vs. Wisconsin.   But the key is to let THEM - the Amish -  choose what is right for their religion and culture.  If the Amish come to believe that they need advanced education to compete and thrive, they'll make that change.   So, again, I see MC Valentine's point and I think it's worthy of dscussion, but, in the end, I think this is an issue that the Amish should be left to decide.  I'll also add that despite the lack of FORMAL education, I have met many, many, many Amish who are absolutely brilliant (and I've met many, many non-Amish with fancy degrees who are not).

As a final note, Elizabeth (and I think many Amish teens are similar to her) KNOWS what else is out there and I think if she decided to leave her parents may be disappointed, but she would still be loved.  She knows what is out there, but she seems to really enjoy Amish life and is full of joy and faith and can hitch a horse and sew a shirt,  skills that someone like me (with my philosophy degree) lack.....



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I'm happy to jump into this conversation; Many of you've known me as "kjunebug" when the sign in changed I had to change my user name.  For those of you who are new and don't know about us, we are a conservative Christian homeschool family- Our oldest "graduated" from our homeschool a few years back.  She did go to community college for about a year and a half before deciding that college was not for her, and shocker, we supported her in that decision.  {Myth buster: You don't need a "high school piece of paper" to get into college or to get jobs}  She now works two jobs, and volunteers many hours in the youth program at our church.  College is not for everyone, it was never designed to be for everyone.   I've heard the whine of the MC Valentine's of the world, and the aren't you cheating your children argument. It's an arguement I get tired of hearing and there is a double standard here, it's OK for the secular gov. schools to shove liberal ideas on Christians, but not the other way around.  When Christians do stand their ground they are seen as intolerant, biased and rebellious.    

In my humble opinion, far to many parents leave the entire education process of their children to schools, far to many young adults leave the home untrained in the common sense basics of living, like caring for babies and children, cooking, laundry, sewing and gardening. Those same children could rattle off peroidic tables and 500 digits of pi- what good is that when you can't calm a crying baby at 3am?  Trust me, you have to be pretty darn smart and quick to out wit a curious toddler, that's not something you learn in college or from books.  

Just being a woman, wife and mother, the "years of unending labor" are a given.  You can be a stay at home mother, and having days of unending labor, you can be a working mother, and still have that same day of unending labor when you arrive in from your career. 

All parents train their children up within their own culture, whether conservative and old fashioned or liberal.  I completely agree with the Pastor that the education given in American goverment schools is not in line not only with Amish living, it's not in line with The Holy Bible and Christian living. 

Coincidentally, I did a little research this weekend on the history of education in America, what I discovered was shocking.  We have an old encyclopedia set, circ. 1971.  Even then, public education was described as that which is paid for through taxation AND controlled by the government.  Horace Mann's ideal of public education in America, cites that public education ought to be nonsectarian, which means free of religion. 

There's so much more I could say, but I'm out.  Time to make supper for the family.

paulaayn's picture

Re: In Defense of Amish Education

Well said Kimberly. 

I get tired too of hearing how women need 'further' education and a career to have a fullfilling life.  ALL the working women I know come home to kids that are wild from school/daycare and then have all the house work still to do.  That sounds more like unending labour than my days.

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I was hoping to hear your thoughts on this one!!!! Wink

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Thanks Barb!

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Hello all,

Well, I think I can contribute a little to this discussion as an Amish person and as a retired "English" public school teacher for almost 30 years.

First of all, as far as this higher education issue goes, you have to understand that the Amish philosophy of life, of its goals and direction are very much different than that of most Americans.  The American ideals of bigger, better, more.  Bigger houses, better cars, more money.  Status, status, status.   I don't want to be judgmental but as a former "English" I know that these ideas are indeed prevalent.  You only have to watch TV and take in the commercials to realize this.

These ways are all alien to the Amish way of thinking.  To us, we want to live a plain and simple life among our own people.  We want to live a life that is upbuilding to Christ's Church and be a good witness to others of the peace and love of Christ. We want to be modest and plain in our homes, our dress, our transportation.  We must live in the world but we don't want to be a part of it.  In any one community everybody's clothes look the same.  We drive the same style of buggies.  Our homes are large enough to accomodate our family and its needs but not to impress others.

In our way of thinking, to participate in higher education is a desire to achieve to be better than others.  To us, this is prideful.  I say this as a former "English" with a Master's degree in Early and Middle Childhood Education.   I don't know that I went to college to be better than others but I did want to make a better life for myself.

I know of a boy who has left the Amish from a community in New York.  He was very bright.  He left and is now going to a Mennonite church where college education is allowed.  He felt that being Amish was holding him back from his full potential.  That he was too intelligent to remain Amish.   That he had a great future ahead of him if he left the Amish.

As an Amish person, this about makes me shudder.  Our full potential is to live as much like Christ did as we can.  Our goal is to be an up-building member of His Church.   It is hard to see yourself as being held-back of you're busy helping build-up the Church. 

Christ has said that the eye should not say to the arm or leg "I have not need of thee."   Or rather, as this boy would say, "Hey, the rest of the Body of Christ, get with it, you're holding me back." 

I don't want to judge this boy but to my thinking he has taken his eyes off of Christ and focused them on himself.  He is smart and is proud of it.  He wants others to know he his smart.  He wants to be a "somebody" in this world.  To an Amish person this all smacks of pride.  We want to be a humble people not a prideful people.

The important question is rather, what is the Amish church holding him back from?  The answer is, being a more and more worldly person.

As Amish people we need to look at the restrictions we have in place in our ordnungs like guardrails on a twisting mountain road.  When you are on a dangerous mountain road do you look at the guardrails running alongside you as restrictive and inhibiting.  If you are a driver like I was, rather, you greatly appreciate the guardrails for protecting you from driving over the edge of a cliff.  So too, with the ordnung, it acts to protect us from the World and its temptations.  The alluring things of the world that can tempt us and take our eyes away from Christ.

I would like to point out that just because one has not gone on to a higher education does not mean that one is un-educated.  I know of many Amish who are very well traveled, very well read, very articulate.  Some of course, are not.  But, trust me, as a former public school teacher, the percentages of "Englishers" who are ignorant are sad indeed.  Consider Jay Leno and his spot quizzes of folks on the street.  Scary, indeed.

A couple of weeks ago I went with the boys of the west district on a camp-out.  One of the boys, who is indeed very bright, was seated at the picnic table working out algebra and calculus equations from a textbook  he had purchased at a yard sale.

At the present time a number of the youth boys are all excited about bee-keeping.  They are reading books about it; attending seminars; and talking with local bee keepers.  Isn't that being educated even if it doesn't earn a degree?

As far as teachers go, they attend Amish and Mennonite teacher's institutes.  In the three schools in my community there are two teachers in each, one for the lower graders (grades 1 - 4) and one for the upper graders (grades 5 - 8).  We are fortunate that each of the schools has a male teacher for the upper graders.  Two of them are married and one is a single boy.

I think most of our girls and women would agree that to them to be a wife and mother is one of the most blessed things to be in God's world.  As I heard a minister say at a wedding last week, "If the man is the head of the house, the mother is its heart."  To the Amish people, to be husband, wife, parents is a sacred trust.  We look at the English people as they send their childrent off to baby-sitters and daycare with dismay.  How can anyone send their children off to be raised by others?  Our schools are extensions of the  Church.  Our teachers are Church members we trust.  We are all striving to raise up the next generation of the Body of Christ.

Well, I have rambled on too long.  In closing, please do not judge the Amish people by the standards of American culture.  The American ideals of success and accomplishment are not at all the same as the Amish ideals of success and accomplishment.  We are striving to become members of God's Eternal Kingdom.  The only things we can take with us, after death, are the things we have accomplished for Him.  The rewards we will receive in Heaven will not be based on our education or income levels but how we have lived for Him during our lives.  May we all strive to be more like the Lord Jesus Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves.

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Hello Gusluke,
My husband and I, along with our three boys, have decided to return to my roots with the amish way of life. I had to do some heart wrenching in order to do so. My husband is more than willing to go after many prayerful discussions between us. I am so happy to be returning to where I should have remained in the first place. Please pray for us as we journey home to the LORD'S HOUSE.

Elizabeth and William

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GusLuke, your insights are always interesting ... and edifying.  Thanks for taking the time to give us your "hybrid" (if I may use that word) perspective.  Like Diann, I was waiting to see if/when you would respond.  The bottom line for me is that being Amish is a choice.  Anyone choosing to join the Amish must know what they are accepting both in terms of religious beliefs and lifestyle, and that includes education.  It is each individual's choice, and it was Elizabeth Eicher's choice.  There's nothing wrong with being Amish, and there's nothing wrong with a college education; it simply comes down to which choice is right for you.  ~ Janice

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Well said, Janice...

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Beautifully stated, Gusluke...

Margie Conrad

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Hello Gusluke!

I was anxiously awaiting your reply to this post.  And, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentence, "The rewards we will receive in Heaven will not be based on our education or income levels but how we have lived for Him during our lives"  -- well said and right on!

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paulaayn's picture

Re: In Defense of Amish Education

Same here!

I like what was said at the wedding 'If the man is the head of the house, the mother is its heart.'  That is so true. 

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This does not reference the education debate, but isn't the photo actually the Eichers' house and not a school?

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No...I took the above photo myself, it is an Amish school in Indiana...

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Are you sure? I'm looking at a 2 story building, with 4 windows on top and 4 windows and a door on the bottom. It looks like the top floor is at ground level on the opposite side, and there's a cow on the left side of the picture. (Sometimes you reference a picture when there is none - I wonder if the software isn't messing something up.)

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I apologize for some confusion caused by me falling into the phrase "one room school-house"'s a charming phrase, but not always accurate....Amish schools are often a basement and a couple of I changed that caption...Yes, this is an Amish school...I took the photo myself and have seen schools attending, but I think maybe the caption was confusing!Smile

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The Amish children who go to public schools are educated fairly well, but I worry about the ones that go to Amish schools.  The teacher himself (or herself, usually they are men) has only gone to school until the 8th grade!!  I really don't think that they are educated enough themselves to be teaching.  I used to work with a man who was an Amish school teacher.  He worked in the factory that I was at for the summer.  Believe me, he was NOT an educated person.  I would not want him teaching my children.

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I've also seen public school teachers who I would not want teaching my children. There's nothing magical about the public school system - there are good schools and bad schools, good teachers and bad teachers. The same, I'm sure, could be said about the Amish schools.

paulaayn's picture

Re: In Defense of Amish Education

I've seen a lot of public school teachers I wouldn't want teaching Ella, that's one of the reasons we're homeschooling.

Don't forget, in the days that everyone attended 'one room schools' the teacher was often a young girl not much older than her students and without a fancy degree.  Also, I have friends who went to teachers' college and all they learn there is crowd control -something I'm sure isn't needed too much in an Amish school.

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Any Amish school teachers that I have read about have been women.Not to stereotype them,but usually 20-30ish age,unmarried women. I have never read of an Amish teacher being a man. Kevin,what is your take on this? You would be more an authority than I am.

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Well, Hudson is making a bit of a generalization...I wouldn't say none of the teachers are educated enough to teach...because most states lack a certification system for Amish teachers you get a wide variety in skill levels....Yes, Hudson would be correct, I wouldn't want some of those teachers teaching my children, but some are absolutely superb (this is not unlike any school system, I guess,but because of lack of cert I think you get less consistency)....I have personally met some wonderful Amish teachers...but I have also met 15 year old girls who are teaching school....yikes...a lot of responsibility for someone so young...And I've also personally met male Amish school teachers, males as teachers are actually much more common than you might think...I'd say the majority of Amish teachers are women, but there are many men...often they'll teach in the school year and work construction or something in the summer...

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Thanks for clarifying that,Kevin!!

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I had to giggle a bit at the end of MC Valentine's post. While she (he?) makes some valid points, she says she enjoys the column and finds appeal in the Amish way of life. Then at the end she says, "Does this mean that at age 16, her future has been determined for her -- she is already intended to marry into a life of never ending manual labor?" I've got to wonder, just what does she think the Amish way of life involves? Living simply is just plain hard work. (Pun intended.Smile) It also seems to me, from what I've seen of Amish culture, that it is very much about personal choice - individuals choose to join the church or not. So, Elizabeth's future isn't determined by anyone but herself.

The Amish that I have met are well spoken and intelligent. Good grief, they can speak 3 languages! While I know high school graduates that can barely spell. I think, perhaps, that MC V's mistake, if I can call it that, is to think that attending a classroom school is the only way to learn.

paulaayn's picture

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Yes, and German isn't easy to learn either!

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I have an 8th grade education. When I went to enter the 9th grade my family experienced some hardships. I went to work full time. I had to get a special permit from the state to work as an adult. Over the years most entry level jobs do not require you to have a high school diploma. Most want a high school education. I always stated home schooled in the education field. As that was the truth. I did some study work trying to further myself. No one ever checked when I did work. There was nothing to check but my word that I was home schooled. I did go and take the GED test when I was 22. I passed with flying colors. In fact my highest score was in math and I always did terrible in math when I was in school. I think being in the real world handling money situations helped. I am now a housewife and I do not work outside the home. Lovina's daughters will probably be the same. I do not need an advance education to be a homemaker. 

Not everyone needs to go to collage. The Amish have proven that they do not need advance education. They are able to support themselves, family, and community without it

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I agree with you. I left school in the middle of 12th grade to get married. I have worked in retail and ever mentioned a diploma. I have been married for 33 years and do not regret my decision. I no longer work off the farm because it always conflicts with life on the farm! People who berate homemakers ANNOY is most likely the hardest(yet most rewarding) job that there is!!

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For me, it always goes back to "choice".  We know the Amish are very smart, and keeping the grade level so low does put them at a disadvantage in the outside world, for even a job requiring a high school diploma.  The fear they show over people leaving the Amish, to me, shows a somewhat lack of faith, when they're using faith as their defense.  Again, I'm glad they're able to defend their belief system, but I feel bad for those who want to go on and can't, or won't out of fear and guilt.  That's a great topic, Kevin, and a good post!  :)

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I think in the past an 8th grade education was probably fine for Amish children but I believe heading forward it might better serve them to at least go through high school.  At least in our area a lack of available farm ground and the recession hurting the carpentry trade, it might become necessary for some Amish boys and girls to find jobs in the English businesses of the area.  A high school education might prove very helpful in this respect. 

On a side note, while grocery shopping this morning at Troyers just north of Berne, IN, on highway 27, I just sat in the car and watched the children playing in the schoolyard right next door.  Many of them were barefoot and one little guy in particular came skipping out of the outhouse.  I just marveled at how carefree they seemed to be...unlike many of the children that age that attend public school and have to worry about peer pressure, drugs and weapons in school.  Very possibly the Amish do have the right idea!!


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Well there is two sides to every story. Here is what Elizabeth and the rest of the Amish gain: a loving family, a real community, etc. While they like everyone else has problems what i have noticed is that lack of formal higher education or not Amish people are still gainfully employed and they never stop learning just look at the savvy business accumen many Amish communities exhibit.

Here's the flip side of higher education. I as well as many people I know that have Bachelors of science degrees and above are going through, not enough experience to back that degree up in the so called recession proof industy "the medical field." I know unemployed and underemployed registered nurses, doctors, radiology techs, etc. Think thats an exaggeration? check out a medical or nursing board. No one will touch a primary care doctor or a nurse with less then 2 years of trauma or acute experience. 

We are saddled with tremendous debt, working on an as needed basis with astoundingly high patient ratios. MDs are paid by production, those who cannot produce have their contracts stripped during the quarterly review.  Many of us have no health insurance ourselves. We can't afford too since we have to pay for personal liability coverage.  That is the best case scenario, the other scenario is now being officially overqualified to anything besides what all of us already know how to do.   We do not have a loving family or an understanding community to fall back on at the end of a 12 hour shift that turned into 16 hours.I've seen doctors falling asleep writing an order because he or she has not slept in 48 solid hours. Now thats true drudgery!! What many of us non Amish get is families that complain that we don't spend any time with them, corporations and insurance companies who tell us how and when we can treat a patient as if they have the knowledge base to make such decisions.

 In exchange for the years we have put in to higher education we are kicked, scratched, slapped, spit on, bitten, and threatened by lawsuits at every turn of that hat. As of this morning a doctor was SHOT yes SHOT by a patient at John Hopkins hospital. The public beleives these are fluke cases but they are not. This is becoming a norm to brutally assault doctors, nurses, cops, firefighters, etc.

I won't even go into all the people with MBAs, etc that are unemployed, entire life savings and 401ks wiped clean thanks to corporate greed. Again so much for that higher education, half of them now consider themselves fortunate to be bagging groceries.

I  know the grass isn't always greener on the other side but look at all that Elizabeth does have: her family loves her no matter what, even if she left the lifestyle it would be ok. Heck even if she made her vows and then broke them she would not be out for life. She would be forgiven if she ever decided to come back. Forgiven for real!! Not forgiven with 50 different conditions attached.

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Like you I can see the pros and cons of the Amish Educational system.

However, indeed, when we start to enforce our standards upon the Amish their culture and lifestyle is lost. Also, the education that secular America receives is not in line with the Amish believe system taking that they adhere to the doctrine of Dordrecht. Also for the home schoolers there are many topics from our secular Educational system that are off limits. Is that next to be put on the chopping block. The Amish educate the children in a way that they see fit, so as many home school parents educate theirs.

Also as you stated concerning the Baptism, there are Amish youngster that per-sue education in a secular environment from which also a fair amount comes back to the order to get baptized.

Let's respect the Amish for their believes and all that is involved with it. And keep our hands off, because who determines what is better.

My personal form of what is better, right and wrong, comes from scripture, while many of non believers do not adhere to that. I pray a blessing over the Eicher family and your endeavors on the column.


Pastor Christiaan J. de Ruiter Th.D.