The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Part 3

Professor Feinberg pointed out that American courts have long held that the state has a “sovereign power of guardianship” over minors, which confers upon it the right, or perhaps even the duty, to look after the interests of those who are incapable of protecting themselves. After all, compulsory education laws are designed to end child labor and increase literacy rates and ensure that everyone has the chance to become informed and contributing citizens of society, through formal education. It is a safeguard, to ensure their growth is not stunted by prematurely assuming the responsibilities of adults. And as Justice Heffernan stated — “religion, morality, good government, and happiness are all dependent upon education.”

In the U.S. Supreme court there was a dissenting opinion. Even though Justice Douglas voted with the majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, he dissented in part. He wrote:

the education of the child is a matter on which the child will often have decided views. He may want to be a pianist or an astronaut or an oceanographer. To do so he will have to break from the Amish tradition…. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential…of the right of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed.[1]

Those of us who left the Amish know how we had to leave the community to have any other options open to us. In the Amish mind, no vocation is an option if someone else in the community hasn’t already done it. Leaving the Amish at the tender age of thirteen or fourteen is also not an option. This can lead to such a feeling of being trapped. This was obviously not what Justice Burger had in mind when he wrote:

As the record shows, compulsory school attendance to age 16 for Amish children carries with it a very real threat of undermining the Amish community and religious practice as they exist today…[2]

There is something very disturbing about this. This would mean that the survival of the culture is dependent on denying their youth an adequate education, and that the authors of these opinions were willing to let that be so. They seemed to forget to ask the question of whether it is morally compelling to deny Amish children a higher education so that the culture can survive. 

It is true that for those Amish youthinclined to leave, that two more years of education would give them a much better chance of surviving a break from the “fold.” Those of us who have left the community know this. The Amish know this too, and in my view it is the crux of the matter, and the very reason the Amish do not allow two more years of education. Their aim is to limit their children’s education, so that their youth don’t “discover” that they can leave. And there is always the expectation that young people will “settle down and join church,” which makes it very difficult for anyone to break away. Even though more Amish people would leave if they perceived they had a choice, I do not believe it would threaten the survival of the culture. There are happy, well-adjusted Amish people suited to that lifestyle. If people had a conscious choice of staying or leaving, it would create a more “willing” community.

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3 thoughts on “The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Part 3”

  1. Huzzah Saloma! I agree, the Amish community would only benefit from allowing freedom of education. Greg Mortenson has shown this through his Three Cups of Tea organization, which helps educated repressed Middle Eastern girls (

    Many of the girls who get educated come back to help raise up their community. I think the same would happen for the Amish.

  2. I can’t believe in this day and age that a person in this Country is forced to stay home and be deprived an education up to the 12th grade. Where are their rights in all this? I agree that if Amish young adults were given the same standards as other American children in having to go to High school they would be better able to make an educated decision about what path is best for them to pursue whether it be to stay or leave. These posts are very important and am so glad you are standing up for what is right no matter who disagrees! God Bless you!

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