School Choice & Charters

Amish Teaching Is Diverse, Author Discovers

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 05, 2006 5 min read
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An anthropologist who visited Amish schools in five states has published a scholarly book showing such schools are not frozen in time and are diverse in how they educate children to live apart from the world.

In Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, an associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York College at Potsdam, provides insight into a sector of private schooling that, boosted by high birth rates among Amish, is one of the fastest-growing in the country. The book is based on her observations in 38 private schools and interviews with 142 people from eight Amish communities and one Old Order Mennonite community.

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‘Not Our Way’

“The Amish are 21st-century people who have to explore modernity,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said in an interview last week. “The communities continue to evaluate their role of how they will react to the dominant society.” Paring back or adding school subjects or selecting textbooks viewed as more relevant reflect changes in how Amish people view their role in the broader world, she says in her book.

The fatal school shooting of five Amish girls in Lancaster County, Pa., by a deranged intruder on Oct. 2 drew the world’s attention to a single one-room Amish school. Three of the five other girls who were wounded have since returned to classes, according to a statement released Nov. 21 by an accountability committee handling money donated in response to the tragedy. One girl remains hospitalized, and the other is semicomatose at home and likely to have lifelong disabilities. The local community razed the West Nickel Mines School and is preparing to build a new school on a different site.

Alternative Model

Amish schools are important to study, said Donald B. Kraybill, a sociologist and an expert on the Amish at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, because “they suggest an alternative model of small, parent-controlled schools that can be very effective in educating young people at a very low cost. They don’t have big bureaucracies or superintendents or boards of trustees dictating their curriculum.”

Graduates of Amish schools with only 8th grade educations, he noted, have been successful in managing businesses with more than $1 million in annual sales, such as hardware stores. Mr. Kraybill acquired Train Up a Child, scheduled for release Dec. 15, as the first in a series of books on Anabaptist and Pietist groups he is editing for the Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Amish and the Mennonites have their roots in 16th-century Anabaptist groups in Europe that rejected infant baptism. The Amish population, 200,000 in the United States, doubles in size every two decades, and most attend any of the 1,500 private schools run by their own people, according to Mr. Kraybill.

Charles L. Glenn, the dean of Boston University’s school of education and a researcher on private education, said the book will help non-Amish get over some erroneous assumptions about the Christian denomination.

Basing his comments on the preface and first chapter of the book, Mr. Glenn said he hadn’t known that “Amish schools are basically a modern invention.” Many Amish communities first created schools, which go only through 8th grade, in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the consolidation of rural public schools.

In addition, Mr. Glenn said, he hadn’t realized Amish communities differed so much from each other in how they interact with the broader world. “It’s easy to help kids learn how to be Amish and have no contact with the world, but to help them be Amish and have friends who are not Amish and work in the mainstream economy is an interesting challenge,” he said.

Not Fundamentalists

Ms. Johnson-Wiener spent much of 2002 on the road, accompanied by Amish teachers, visiting schools run by Old Order groups. Such Anabaptist groups are distinctive because they adhere to an ordnung, German for “code of conduct,” that each community agrees to abide by. The code varies from community to community.

Lessons are generally in English, though some teachers more than others use the German dialect spoken by Amish for instruction. English is the language that Amish children use to communicate with people outside their communities and to correspond with other Amish since their dialect is not a written language. Ms. Johnson-Weiner converses in the language. Amish schools also teach standard German, which Amish use in church and to read the Bible.The most conservative schools are run by Swartzentruber Amish in upstate New York. Unlike the other Amish studied, that group doesn’t permit its members to work for non-Amish employers or even sell goods at public farmers’ markets.

The author tells how children in Swartzentruber Amish schools study only reading, spelling, and arithmetic and use McGuffey’s Readers from the late 19th century with antiquated English words and situations. The Swartzentruber Amish have responded to modernity by increasingly trimming the curriculum to the most basic subjects, she writes.

At the same time, Amish in several small settlements that are less conservative teach art, health, geography, and history, in addition to the basics of arithmetic, reading, spelling, and penmanship. The more progressive Amish schools teach English in a way that enables children to use it well while interacting with outsiders, Ms. Johnson-Weiner observed.

She found that all schools teach Amish values, such as diligence and teamwork, but they differ in whether they teach religion overtly. Most Amish believe it’s the role of the church and the family—not the school—to teach religion, so in some schools, teachers don’t even lead prayer, according to Ms. Johnson-Weiner. At the same time, teachers in the more progressive schools discuss Bible verses with children.

“It surprised me when religion was overt in the more progressive schools—to go in and see bulletin boards about Jesus,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said in the telephone interview. “For most of the times I’ve visited Amish homes and known Amish people, I’ve been with less progressive groups. The Amish aren’t fundamentalists. They don’t believe you can have this personal sense of salvation.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Amish Teaching Is Diverse, Author Discovers


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