Amish and Education

Only by joy and sorrow does a person know anything about themselves and their destiny. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There are few Amish rules I deem to be outright “wrong.” However, there is one that I feel passionately about, and that is the one that limits Amish young people from going to school beyond the eighth grade. Many people think that it is only the girls who have their education limited, but in this case the deprivation is distributed fairly across both sexes.

I will never forget that September day in 1970, when my younger brother and sisters all headed off to school on the first day of the season. I wanted so badly to continue on with my education, but I was fourteen and still dependent on my parents, which meant I had to live with the Amish rule that all young people are finished with school when they graduate from eighth grade. The tradition had been in force too long to allow for exceptions, and I was too young to leave the community and make it on my own. Besides, my job at that time was to conform to the Amish ways and get ready to be a member of the church. I had no choice but to accept that I had finished my education for the rest of my life.

Six years later, I gathered up my gumption to leave the Amish, partly because I was leaving a abusive family situation and partly because I wanted to further my education. Then the Amish came and captured me back to the community. Three years later I left for a second time, when I was twenty-three. One of the first things I did was take my general education diploma (GED). David and I got married a year and a half after I left. 

I started taking college courses at Burlington College after I got married, but I interrupted that education when our older son made his arrival, because I couldn’t divide myself between motherhood and being a student. However, I promised myself that someday I would take up where I left off. That time came when our older son was in his first year of college and our younger son was in high school. I took four semesters of community college courses. Then I heard about the Ada Comstock program at Smith College, (a program for women who have not finished their college education at the traditional age). I reluctantly applied because I didn’t think I wanted to make the weekly three-hour commute to Smith College. But when I was accepted with nearly a full scholarship and started looking at their course catalog, I could not refuse.

Am I ever glad I accepted — my Smith education was better than I could ever have imagined. Perhaps it was the long, hard struggle that made me appreciate the experience all the more, but the intellectual stimulation was better than sitting down to a five-course gourmet meal when I am really hungry. After three full semesters, I had the opportunity of doing an internship with the leading expert on Amish culture, Dr. Donald Kraybill. Then I traveled to Hamburg, Germany for a semester abroad. I was able to travel to five countries with my husband and I was fortunate to visit key historic sites of my Anabaptist ancestors. I graduated from Smith College the year after my son, Paul, graduated from Johns Hopkins University. I wore his gown for my graduation. 

There are others from my childhood who I wish could have taken part in such a satisfying education as what I have had. One of the things that few people know is how many incredibly intelligent people there are among the Amish. I often think about someone I will call Ervin, who happened to be in the same grade in Amish school as I was. Ervin was an absolute genius. Much like the main character in the movie Good Will Hunting, he seemed to intuitively comprehend things the rest of us can only contemplate. He could have made an amazing contribution in our world as a physicist, rocket scientist, astronomer, engineer, college professor, you name it… he could have done it. However, Ervin will forever remain recluse, even in his own Amish community. He was painfully shy then, and he still is, judging from my brief conversation with him at a school reunion some years ago. He never got married, and I don't know what he does for a living — last I knew he was a farmer. Ervin's level of intelligence is such a gift… I have to ask, what right did the Amish have to decide for Ervin that an eighth grade education is all he may have? To bury that talent seems like a federal crime. 

Speaking of federal, in a future post I will write about the 1972 United States Supreme Court decision (Wisconsin v. Yoder) that exempted the Amish from compulsory education laws.

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10 thoughts on “Amish and Education”

  1. Hi Saloma –

    I’m glad you had the opportunity to continue your education.

    As usual I’m brimming with questions. Do the Amish deny young people educational opportunities because of their religious beliefs or is to to keep them from leaving the community?

    Susan :)

  2. Do you think that stopping education so young (because I believe that at 13 and 14 is when you really begin to question things and your mind begins open up more) is meant to basically squash any questions about this particular way of life? Religion and the culture itself?

  3. Saloma
    You should be very proud of yourself for getting a college degree. The odds were very stacked against you. Amish or not, most people who had 8th grade education, several years lapse in their education, armed with a GED would be able to succeed at Smith. That’s a wonderful success story.

  4. Thank you for your compliment. I feel incredibly blessed every time I think “from whence I have come.” But you know, it’s not all bad. Because of the struggles to get to where I am, I also appreciate my education and other blessings in my life so much more than if they had come without the hardships.

    Thank you again, and blessings to you,


  5. Saloma-

    I have recently discovered your blog and I find it very informative and heartfelt. I am fascinated by religion and religious practices and am trying to educate myself on the variance of them throughout the world, so thank you for helping me!

    Just one comment/ question about this post. What do you mean by “Then the Amish came and captured me back to the community.”?


  6. Hello Caitlin,

    So glad you found my blog. I, too, am fascinated by the world’s various religions. I would add philosophy to that. I am particularly interested in the universal messages found throughout many religions and philosophies.

    What I meant by “captured me back” is that a group of Amish — including the bishop of our church and his wife, my uncle who is a minister and his wife, my brother, my sister, and a friend — showed up in Vermont to take me back to the community in Ohio. I didn’t want to find out if they would physically put me on the van to take me back if I resisted, so I decided if I am going back anyway, then I may as well go back with my dignity intact. I lived there for nearly three more years as I made another attempt at fitting myself into the Amish community, but no such luck.

  7. Continuing my posts on dated entries. My husband grew in in a small town where the elementary school had a number of Amish students. He commented on some of the girls who were getting some extra tutoring from the teachers at breaks, so that they could squeeze more education into the time that they had. It really broke his heart that some of his brightest peers weren’t getting to continue their education. (He is from the Russian Mennonite culture, and education is very highly valued. He says it traces back to when every member of the community needed to be educated enough to step in as pastor, in case the leaders got caught by the authorities).

  8. Hi,

    Thank you so much for your wonderful presentation at the Algonquin library; you peeked my curiosity and I’ve been reading through all of your blog since. I agree with you on so many topics; victim protection/counseling, education, women’s rights, etc.
    You are clearly intelligent and thoughtful – thank you for having the courage to get your education. Hopefully yours will be an example for others from the Amish community if they are lucky/brave enough to read your blog/book. Regarding Ervin, I just encourage you to let him know your honest thoughts; the rest is up to him…sounds like the brilliant thoughtful type and one never knows; perhaps you may plant a seed.

  9. This post especially touched me, because of what you wrote about Ervin. How horrible must it be to be a gifted child in an environment that discourages any interest in learning and inquisitveness?

    I, too, was one of those kids that just understood everything without even trying or studying, I loved school (even if it was sometimes a bit boring because it had lots of repetition), I spent most of my elementary school years at the library, I loved language and reading (just about anything, from children’s books to newspapers) and thrived in a learning environment. I wanted to understand everything, I asked lots of questions from when I was very small, and luckily, my parents never resorted to the “because it is the way it is” answer, but always tried to explain and reason with me.

    It makes me sad to even imagine what life would have been like for me as a child in an Amish community, and I feel so sorry for all the gifted Amish children out there who are denied and education and the chance to ever explore their full potential. I already felt “odd” often enough in a mainstream schooling environment, because I could sense, very early on, that I was somehow “different” from other children and could not relate at all to struggles with homework or grades or understanding a subject. I can’t even imagine what it would have felt like in an Amish community, where you don’t only feel you are “different”, but where individuality is actively discouraged, as is inquisitiveness and a desire to not just learn, but actually understand and get behind things.

    It makes me wonder – if the Amish think we are the way God made us, and that our life is a gift from God, just like our abilities and talents, how is it acceptable for them to let such a giant gift from God, like Ervin’s genius mind, just go to waste?

    And, honestly, I think the US system, which allows parents to systematically deny their children an education, is awful. I just can’t get my head around educational neglect of the children being sanctioned by constitutional rights of the parents (not just for the Amish, but also for other groups, e.g. fundamental Christians who decide to homeschool with questionable materials). The discussion is always about the parents’ rights to decide how to raise their children, and the parents’ religious beliefs. But what about the right of children to receive an education? Is that not a constituational right, too?

    In Germany, school is mandatory for all children. We don’t only have public schools, we do have private schools of all kinds (Christian and others), but they also have to adhere to the same educational and teaching standards, with educated teachers and a full curriculum covering everything, and not just from a religius point of view. Of course this limits the parents’ right to being the sole influence on their children to some extent, but it does go a long way in giving all children the chance of a good education.

    1. Sarah, I’m so glad that your talents and gifts were nurtured and valued by the adults around you and that the education system in Germany allowed you to thrive and grow in your intellectual pursuits.

      Yes, I have lots more to say about education among the Amish in later posts. “Ervin” is one example of someone who had so much potential that won’t be realized in that community. There is one word for it — Schade.

      Thank you for your comments.

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