Rumspringa Revisited

Have you read the book “Rumspringa?” If so, do you think it does justice to the dilemma young Amish teens find themselves in? 

Sarah Weaver asked this question some time ago, and I am just now getting around to answering it — thanks for your patience, Sarah. Yes, I have read Rumspringa — in fact I own the book, and I just now pulled it off the shelf to trigger my memory about some specifics.

I honestly don’t feel the book does justice to the dilemma young Amish teens find themselves in, because this is a look from the outside in. Granted, the author conducted more than 400 interviews for the book, which gives him a different perspective than if he had only conducted 10. However, it is my feeling that someone knows this dilemma or they don’t — and usually it is parallel with whether the person has lived it or not. And the ‘d’ at the end of the word ‘live’ is an important aspect of this perspective. A person still in the Amish community is not usually able to express the feelings of this dilemma for someone to portray this conflict adequately. One of the reasons for this is that if youth have any feelings of dissatisfaction for that life, they have to repress these to be able to stay.

So my feelings are that a person can only reflect on these conflicts after leaving because of the pressure they were under while still in the community. In this regard, Shachtman seems to be able to get at conflicts externally, but not the ‘internal’ conflict that Amish teens face about their lot in life.Notice I say ‘lot in life’ not ‘choice about whether to stay or leave.’ As I mentioned in my post of December 6, 2009 (entitled To Leave or not to Leave?), most of us who have lived that life didn’t consciously think we had the choice to leave until we were already contemplating leaving. It was akin to knowing we have the choice to commit suicide — we all know we have that choice, but we don’t think about it consciously unless we are considering it as a possibility. What I think the book Rumspringa does is perpetuate the misconception that Amish youth are given a conscious choice about whether they stay or leave. If I could change just one public misconception about the Amish, it would be this one.Sadly, this book does exactly the opposite.

The one thing that I learned from this book, though, is that there are some differences in the Indiana Amish from where I grew up in Ohio. I never went to any of those huge parties of several thousand, for instance. I wasn’t aware that there were Amish parties that big. The other thing I noticed is that some of the parents are more lenient about their young people doing things that were out of the question in the community in which I grew up. For example, it seems there are parents in Indiana who tolerated their children going on to high school and college, whereas in my home community, this would never have been tolerated, no matter whether one was a member of the community or not. (I cannot imagine the kind of pressure the parents were under for allowing this). And a third difference is that I was not aware of the prevalence of drug use in my home community that is described in this book. Perhaps there was more than I was aware of; perhaps that has changed since I lived there; or perhaps it is still more prevalent among the Indiana youth than in Geauga County, Ohio to this day. Whatever the case may be, this was new to me.

Schactman, in his chapter on education in the Amish, states, “…I am troubled by Amish schooling practices, particularly by the sect’s insistence that children cease formal education after the eighth grade. My concern is that the years between thirteen and eighteen are the most crucial mental development years for a child — and Amish children spend most of them out of school.

“I totally agree with these sentiments, and it was one of the reasons why I left the Amish in the first place.In his concluding remarks in the book. Schachtman claims that the Amish are going to change, whether they want to or not. He cites the Amish shift from an agrarian lifestyle to an “off-the-farm entrepreneurial culture” will necessitate greater participation with mainstream society. I agree. He concludes, “In fifty years, rumspringa will be redefined in broader terms, such as the permitting of high school or of a stint in college before the Amish person has to make up his or her mind to become an Amish adult.”

I think Schachtman is way off the mark on this prediction. This is a total misunderstanding of what makes the Amish who they are. There are very few things that one can name to be true about Amish in general, because there are quite a few variations of rules from one community to another, but not allowing an education beyond the eighth grade is among these few things. Plain dress and the use of horse and buggies are the only other aspects of Amish culture that I can think of that seem to be universal.

To understand how integral this is in Amish culture, one only has to look at their long history of resisting formal education. I would have guessed that this may have started here in this country until I looked into Amish (Anabaptist) history, and what I discovered is that that some of the first Anabaptists were highly educated, but many of the converts were from a more agrarian culture, and soon the sentiments developed that being highly educated was a deterrent to being a devout Anabaptist believer. So this idea of limiting education, seems to have happened long before our ancestors migrated to the United States from Europe. I think this will be one of the last Amish tenets to go, given it is so integral to their whole belief system.

So I think Schachtman certainly got some things right in the book, but I don’t think he really got at the heart of the Amish youth dilemma, to answer your question.

Keep those questions coming. I’d like to address what people are interested in, and questions help to guide me in that direction.

2 thoughts on “Rumspringa Revisited”

  1. Hi, I’m a former Amish Kid now 61 years old, and I think its finally time for me to fulfill my childhood dream of writing about my life of growing up Amish. I like your answer about Rumsringa, however I don’t agree that the Amish will Ever allow more education unless of course they are forced to by the Government. One of my Uncles was with a group of Elders who were briefly jailed in the 1950’s in Lancaster County, PA in order for the County to enforce a stricter Education Program, Good Luck & Thanks, Ammon Fisher

  2. I first became familiar with your work after watching The Amish and Amish: Shunned on PBS. As I sat in my living room watching the shows, I had never felt more understood: I was raised Jehovah’s Witness, which shares some Anabaptist traits with the Amish. I wonder if you can illuminate whether the Jehovah’s Witness’ opposition to college education has Anabaptist roots or comes from some other source?

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