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In the modern world education is often seen as the key to success in the business and professional world. A good education will open doors and possibilities that do not exist for those who do not have the same opportunities. How then do the Amish survive when most, if not all of the group, receive only an eighth-grade education? What happens that prepares their youth to function and live well in our modern world?
One misconception that is often furthered is that the Amish are against higher education and learning. That is simply not true. What is true is that they are deeply skeptical of the American system of high school and higher education. Amish parents want their children to learn the basic things that one needs to function in the modern world; how to read, writing, and mathematics. Therefore, their schools (some of them still one-room) focus on teaching students these in the eight years of school. Here a student is taught the basic building blocks to keep learning in the future. In the Holmes County Amish community there are between 275-300 such schools. [i]
The Amish believe that it is the parents responsibility to oversee the child's education and that it should happen in an environment that will not negate the teachings of the church and community. Their parochial schools are often guided by a board that is deeply connected in the neighborhood and entirely funded by the patrons and families of the students. In addition to the "three Rs," students may receive some German and Bible knowledge to assist them in being a good member of the community.
The Amish also believe that education does not end when a child leaves school. The child is expected to begin a different phase of their education as they begin to learn the work of an adult. Many take jobs or work on the family farm and are educated in a trade or the way of life that will make them a responsible and engaged member of the community. In a sense, the early to mid-teen years could be viewed as a training or technical school where they learn how to master basic skills in a variety of fields. This prepares them to be able to work and live in a way that fosters skills and yet does not detract from the faith and family-oriented world that has done much to preserve the Amish way of life.
The Amish pay property taxes and public school taxes and yet support their local parochial schools. In a landmark Supreme court case, Wisconsin vs. Yoder in 1972, the highest court of the land recognized that, "It is neither fair nor correct to suggest that the Amish are opposed to education beyond the eighth grade level." Rather, according to Chief Justice Warren Burger, "They object to the high school, and higher education generally, because the values they teach are in marked variance with Amish values and the Amish way of life; they view secondary school education as an impermissible exposure of their children to a "worldly" influence in conflict with their beliefs. The high school tends to emphasize intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success, and social life with other students. Amish society emphasizes informal "learning through doing;" a life of "goodness," rather than a life of intellect; wisdom, rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than competition; and separation from, rather than integration with, contemporary worldly society. [ii]
This is in essence the Amish view; educating a child is so important that they are best served by being involved and preparing their children for an active, engaged life within the faith and the community.
If you wish to learn more about Amish education, or their place in history, plan a visit the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The Center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.
Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching, and writing. He is the Executive Director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his thirties he decided to return to school and has a BA in history from The Ohio State University and a MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife, Norita.
i. This community is centered in Holmes County but includes pieces of the six surrounding counties. One-seventh of all the Amish or approximately 30,000 people make up this community. For more see Charles E. Hurst and David L McConnell, An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the Worlds Largest Amish Community. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) 25.
ii. Available online at https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/406/205