The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Part 4

Here is another segment of my paper. I have put in bold the arguments I find the most compelling.

Professor Joel Feinberg assessed this case. Like Justice Heffernan, he understood the intricacies involved. First he acknowledged the case for the exemption:

The case for the exemption was a strong one. The Amish sincerity is beyond question. The simple “unworldly” life that is part of their religion is prima facie inconsistent with modern education; and the virtues of simplicity and withdrawal are “important,” that is, more than merely incidental or peripheral to the Amish religion.[1]

Then he got right to the heart of the matter — that of the rights of the children when he wrote:

The case against the exemption for the Amish must rest entirely on the rights of Amish children, which the state as parens patriae is sworn to protect. An education that renders a child fit for only one way of life forecloses irrevocably his other options…. in nearly all cases, critical life decisions will have been made irreversibly for a person well before he reaches the age of full discretion when he should be expected, in a free society, to make them himself. To be prepared for anything … in this complex and uncertain world would seem to require as much knowledge as a child can absorb throughout his minority. These considerations have led many to speak of the American child’s birthright to as much education as may be available to him, a right no more valid than the religious rights of the parents, but one that must be given reluctant priority in cases of unavoidable conflict…. An impartial decision would assume only that education should equip the child with the knowledge and skills that will help him choose whichever sort of life best fits his native endowment and matured disposition. It should send him out in the adult world with as many open opportunities as possible.[2]

I could not have said this better, even after experiencing the limitations of my eighth grade education when I left the Amish. It seems he and Justice Heffernan came to the same conclusions. However Justice Heffernan is the only one who addressed the issue for those who may choose to leave the Amish:

Those young Amish who leave the group have received no education that equips them for modern American life. By not enforcing the school attendance law, the state of Wisconsin has consigned these young people to a future without any choice or goal except those of the traditional Amish life. They are abandoned without the intellectual tools to survive should they elect to leave the Amish way of life. On the basis of the religious beliefs of their parents, the Amish children are without a hearing consigned to a life of ignorance—blissful as it may seem to the author of the principal opinion, who apparently views the Amish as ‘the noble savage,’ uncorrupted by the world.[3]

Not only did Justice Heffernan understand the nuances of the children’s rights, but he is also the only one I know of who offered a solution:

The points of view, however, are clearly reconcilable. The law requires that all children attend school until they are sixteen. The Amish object to the worldliness of the usual high school. The writer of this dissent believes that both objections can be met by an Amish vocational school which will teach reading, agriculture, and husbandry, and whatever religious precepts the Amish community desires. In addition, such basic skills as English and mathematics should be taught—“unpretentious” knowledge that will be useful not only in the Amish community, but would better enable those who fall away from the community to adjust to the outside world and to continue their education if they so desire.[4]

This seems to me like a practical and pragmatic solution. Instead, Amish children everywhere have been deprived of an adequate education in the last thirty-eight years because of this Supreme Court decision.


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

[2] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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1 thought on “The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Part 4”

  1. I don’t understand- the Amish have had their own schools for a long time. My youngest brother was enrolled in one in the Stuarts Draft, Virginia Amish community; that would be in the early 1950s. The teacher, probably uncredited but who passed some kind of exam, was also Amish, a bright young man named Sanford Yoder.

    Come to think of it, I no longer know if the Amish school served youngsters who were older than age 16.

    My parents did not allow me to go, primarily, I think, because they had not allowed me to attend public school a couple of years before when we arrived in Virginia when I was age 13. Their aim was to keep me from attending high school.

    I understand their point of view but it is the one thing I have never quite forgiven them for. Worse yet, I was not allowed access to the local public library. That left me without reading material- and yet, they knew that I was the most bookish of anyone in the family. Expect a 14 year old to feel that the Bible stories we grew up on was enough? Humph.

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