Saloma Miller Furlong
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The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Part 1

Of all the questions I get at my book talks, none will get a more passionate response than when someone asks about Amish and why they limit their education to eight grades. Many people are under the impression that education is limited for girls only, but in this case the deprivation is equally shared between the genders.

I can never really answer the question from the Amish point of view because I didn’t understand it while I was Amish. It took me until the last few years to realize that the Amish don’t have a rule against higher education… it is just a given. If it were included in the rules of the church (the Ordnung) then it could be debated. Secluding it from debate makes it impossible to change this “given.”

Now that I have been out of the Amish for this many years, I understand that the reason that limiting education to the eighth grade is important to the Amish because it keeps the young people from realizing they have a choice about staying or leaving. Few youngsters could survive in the outside world at fourteen years old. So, in essence, the Amish limit their children’s education so that their culture can survive.

We see it clearly when a culture in a distant land silences a young woman when she speaks out about her desire for more education as in the case of the attempted assassination of Malala Yousfzai by the Taliban. We sympathize with Malala because it is so clearly unjust and because her need for intellectual freedom is a universal need in all of us. How many people in this country think that this could not happen in the United States of America? Probably many — we pride ourselves that we ensure intellectual freedom for our young people. And yet the silencing of a young woman’s voice  happens in our own country every day, in any Amish community where a young woman wants to keep going to school. And there is no need for physical guns — the pressure to conform is quite enough. At fourteen, a young Amish woman is completely dependent on her family and community for survival. She cannot speak out. I know this from my own experience.

My fourth grade class picture

I was the only Amish child in my class, so you can tell which one is me

I have written a paper about the 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder case that exempted the Amish from compulsory education. I used to have it on my website before I changed over to my new one. For the next few posts, I will be posting this paper in parts. Here is part one:

The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder

In the 1972 landmark United States Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision made by the Wisconsin Supreme Court when they decided the Amish should be exempt from compulsory education, based on their right to exercise their religious freedom. The majority opinions authored by Justice Hallows from the Wisconsin Supreme Court and by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from the U.S. Supreme Court clearly rested on the religious rights of the parents. What they failed to consider is what Philosophy Professor Joel Feinberg aptly pointed out in his book Freedom and Fulfillment — thatthere are three major parties involved in whether or not religious groups should be exempt from compulsory education: the parents, the child, and the state. He acknowledged that it is often difficult to weigh the wishes of the parents with concerns for the child:

Moral perplexity about children’s rights-in-trust [the child’s autonomy rights that he cannot exercise until he is fully formed and capable] is most likely to arise when those rights appear to conflict with certain rights of their parents, and the courts must adjudicate the conflict. Typically the conflict is between the child’s protected personal interests in growth and development …and the parents’ right to control their child’s upbringing.[1]

It is clear from the majority opinion authored by Justice Hallows from the Wisconsin Supreme Court that he was not considering the children’s rights-in-trust when he wrote:

The Old Order Amish religion dictates that the Amish child from the inception of adolescence live according to the mode of life in the Amish community; that he should not attend high school since any high school, public or private, constitutes a deterrent to his salvation. The period of adolescence is critical in the religious and cultural development of the child because at this time the child enters gradually into the fullness of Amish life, is given responsibilities which would be directly interfered with if he were compelled to go to high school…. We view this case as involving solely a parent’s right of religious freedom to bring up his children as he believes God dictates.[2]

What does it mean that any high school is a deterrent to an Amish child’s salvation? This alone should have given Justice Hallows cause for concern. This would suggest that Amish parents teach their children that a higher education is a deterrent to their salvation. This is true in a roundabout way. Amish children are taught that because they were born Amish they need to stay Amish to achieve salvation (or more precisely, they will go to Hell if they leave). And they are also taught that they need to obey the Amish ways without question.


[1] Feinberg, Joel, “A Child’s Right to an Open Future,” in Freedom and Fulfillment, Philosophical Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
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