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.