A New Life Venture

Ever since I undertook an exciting new project, starting in January, I've been trying to find a good time to reveal this endeavor to you, my dear readers. On this Sunday evening, as spring is about to burst forth with blooms here in Western Massachusetts, I feel that time has arrived.

I am applying for a Fulbright research grant to study Amish roots in Germany. I am applying for the grant through the Fulbright program at Smith College, which boasts the strongest U.S. Student Fulbright Program in the country. According to the Smith College website, its "success rate (ratio of winners to applicants) over the past nine years has on average been the highest in the nation among top-producing institutions, including the Ivy League universities and comparable elite colleges." Much of its success can be attributed to Donald Andrew, a topnotch coach for the Smith Fulbright scholarship program.

Those of you who have known me for a time will not be surprised to find out what the subject of my inquiry is.

I am proposing to study the educational practices of the Anabaptists, the ancestors of the Amish, in 1600s and 1700s Germany to find out if the Amish attitudes against “book learning” and cultivating the intellect originated in Europe. Before the 1972 U. S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder exempted them from compulsory education, Amish parents were often jailed for not complying with education laws. I want to discover where such a deep-seated aversion to higher education came from. There is no historical record in the United States, or even in the Amish oral tradition or collective memory concerning these conventions that run counter to the mainstream culture.

My approach to this research is informed by both my life experiences and my formal education and from having lived inside and outside an Amish community. My understanding of the German language comes from majoring in German Studies at Smith College that included studying abroad in Hamburg, Germany for a semester and completing a summer German immersion program at Middlebury College. My ability to decipher old German texts comes from my Amish upbringing — as a child, I read songbooks, prayer books, and the Bible in old German font and I taught children to write in old German script when I was a teacher at an Amish parochial school.

Right now I am doing background research for this project, reading anything I can get my hands on about the history (especially social history) of the Anabaptists/Amish in Germany and on the history of education in Germany in that time frame (which was actually the Holy Roman Empire at the time). Right now I'm reading a book called, Luther's House of Learning by Gerald Strauss, which is the most comprehensive research I've found about education in the 1500s and 1600s. What I am discovering is that there are records of "visitations" by secular authorities to the towns, parishes, and schools at the time. These should prove fruitful in my research.

I am also practicing my German. Right now I'm transcribing a book from old German font into modern font, which exercises my German skills in every way, especially when I read out loud what I have transcribed.

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My application is due in September. There are still many steps to go, including securing a consultant in Germany who will oversee my project, writing the proposal and personal statement, securing letters of references, and a whole lot more. I will hear next year at this time whether I am awarded the Fulbright grant.

If I receive the grant, I will be leaving for Germany in the fall of 2016 for 10 months. I hope to end up in the Middle Rhine region near the archives where I plan to conduct much of my research in Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Speyer, and Wiesbaden.

While I am in Europe, I will visit sites important to Amish/Anabaptist history and I will hold in my thoughts all those Amish people who had a longing to travel to the Mutterland of their ancestors and yet never had the chance. That would include Mem. She wrote about this longing in her last letter to me when she knew I was planning to go to Germany for a semester abroad. She died sixteen days after writing that letter, so she did not get to see me off, nor did she get to hear about my travels. I am sure she will be with me in spirit, should I get this chance to return to Europe.

I was interviewed by the editor of the newspaper at Smith College, The Sophian. I'm providing the link, in case you're interested in reading the article.

I'm wishing you all a wonderful week and a happy spring.

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38 thoughts on “A New Life Venture”

  1. I am so excited for you, Saloma! I pray you’ll get the grant. It’s a fascinating research topic. And I believe you’re mother is cheering you on!

  2. Elva Bontrager

    What a wonderful project! I can’t imagine a more qualified person to undertake it.

    Make sure you emphasize that you have written two books on your subject! They will be forced to recognize not only that you are serious but that you follow through on your commitments. (I know that you know all that, but I needed to say it. :)

    Incidentally, I have run into two incidents that point to a connection between the Amish and Bavaria (which, I believe, borders the areas that you are especially interested in).

    * First, I read a book, a novel, based in Germany where a character haled from Bavaria. She (the character) pronounced several words the same way that we Amish did/do. For instance, she said ‘net’, instead of ‘nichts’.

    * Then my brother was at a party where a Japanese girl, of all people, knew German and had spent several years in Bavaria. He said she spoke almost perfect Pennsylvania Dutch, minus the Englishisms that have crept into our language.

    I think I’ll add this from Wiki: “Several German dialects are spoken in Bavaria. In the administrative regions to the north the Franconian dialect is prevalent, in Swabia the local dialect is Swabian, a thread of the Alemannic dialect family. In the Upper Palatinate people speak the Northern Bavarian dialect that can vary regionally.”

    The best of luck in this endeavor. Thanks for including us in the excitement!

    1. Elva, thank you for your support. Yes, I am mentioning my books, and the talks I’ve done. Drawing on this experience, my plan is to conduct talks in Germany about my findings and the Amish in general.

      From the information I’ve been able to gather, our dialect is closest to that of the Middle Rhine region, where I’m headed. It’s called “Pfälzisch.” But I also know that “Schwäbisch is close to our dialect as well. It will be interesting to see how well I’ll be able to communicate with those who speak the dialect. From what I understand, it is dying out… the younger generation is no longer practicing the language.

      Thank you, Elva, for your encouragement and support. I am so excited about this possibility.

  3. Kristine Lange

    All I can say is “Wow”! It seems that every week when you post your blog you tell about a new idea that I never thought about! Without really thinking about it, I just “assumed” that the Amish got their beliefs against higher education from somewhere in the Bible. But I can’t think think of any place that would refer to that. Then again, I can’t think of any place in the Bible that says “Thou shalt not have rubber on thy buggy wheels”! :-) All kidding aside, that will be a most interesting subject to research.

    It seems that I “almost” learned to speak Polish before English when I was little. But, I remember one instance when we were at the home of some people whom I had never met before. Being taught to be well mannered, I did a lot of listening instead of talking. I asked my grandmother later on about “Why didn’t those people speak Polish the “right way”. She started to laugh and tell me about the different dialects and areas of Poland. So, even if the words and pronunciations were different, we could still understand and get the gist of what they were saying.

    Thank you, again, for keeping my “senior brain” motivated to keep learning something new every day. My prayers will also be with you – that your dreams may be fulfilled. I realize that it will be a lot of hard work – but also, hopefully, a lot of fun.

    1. Kristine, I love your story about speaking Polish. How cute!

      Yes, hard work and fun are one in the same, when I’m doing what I feel I am meant to do.

      Thank you very much for your prayers.

  4. Now I have a plethora of questions about this topic rumbling through my brain. I wonder if the scorn of higher education is fairly recent, say the last 200 years, since few people were educated beyond what was required for day-to-day living? Also, what was the socio-economic status of the early Anabaptists? So many questions! Sounds like a wonderful puzzle to solve. I really hope you get the grant. What an adventure!

    1. Fran, these are great questions. From what researchers have been able to discover, many of the founders of Anabaptism (or more accurately the Swiss Brethren) were well-educated. Many of them were priests before they converted. But one researcher (Claus Peter Clasen) claims that this soon changed because the religion appealed to the peasant class, and well-educated people became the minority. It is thought by some that the distrust of higher education came about because the Anabaptists were being persecuted by those who were educated, and so they associated higher education with aggression. So it may be that this attitude existed early on, and was carried right through all the migrations and cultural changes that the Anabaptists/Amish experienced, and right down through all the generations.

      On the other hand, it could be that the Amish never changed their way of educating, and the world around them did. One of the parts of my research is to determine whether any of the Amish boys were enrolled in the Latin schools, which were designed for the intellectually elite. The reformers made sure that income was not a barrier to the Latin schools, so they could educate those boys who they hoped would be the next generation’s leaders.

      I know, the questions involved in this research are fascinating. I am really having fun with just the background research. I can only imagine how exciting it will be to dig in to the archives.

  5. This sounds like a wonderful, challenging project, and I hope you succeed in being granted the Fulbright. We are leaving today for an Anabaptist tour with Ed Bontrager and Myron and Esther Augsburger. I am hoping I can find some places where my ancestors are from. I have always wanted to learn the German but have never taken the time to do it.

    1. Sadie, that is so exciting that you are taking that tour. From what I understand, people who have Anabaptist ancestors are very moved by visiting such sites. I know I was and will be again.

      Gute Reise!

  6. Wow! This is fantastic. I absolutely love the topic and the plan of study. In fact, my hope is that you are able to pursue it(in some form) and publish with or without the Fulbright. Win-Win. Wishing prayers to you for strength on the journey.

    1. Thank you, Beth! I am learning so much from just doing the background research. There comes a point, though, when I will need access to the archives in order to get to the substance of what is to be discovered. And my plan is to publish those findings… hopefully in Germany and here in the U.S.

      Thank you for your prayers and support.

  7. An old Amish friend told me that the educational ban is to prevent pride. Another Amish man told me it was because they were traditionally farmers, and lacked the need. Some Amish in Middlefield want the ban lifted so their daughters (surprisingly) can attend highschool and college. Whatever the reason, the study to find out why sounds fascinating. I am supportive of your research and am so excited for you!

    1. Missi, I’ve heard these things said among the Amish, but the truth is, not even the leaders in the community will agree about why this is true.

      That is really interesting that some Amish in my home community are wanting to send their daughters to high school. They will never get permission. They need to just do it, and let the chips fall where they may. It is the only way to bring about changes.

      I’ve heard at least one researcher say that he thinks there are some Amish who favor educating their young people beyond the eighth grade, but they don’t want to set a precedent and make it harder for those Amish who don’t want to make those changes. Right now they have the exemption, which may be called into question if some Amish begin educating their children beyond the eighth grade.

      Thank you very much for your support!

  8. Oh, how wonderful, Saloma! I wish you the best with this project. I have a strong feeling that you will be leaving for Germany in the fall of 2016. You have the will, energy, and brilliance to accomplish this important study!

  9. Wonderful! I applaud you for following your intellectual curiosity and researching such an interesting aspect of Amish/German culture. You are the perfect person for this! I have a very good feeling about your application.
    When I visited the Amish/Mennonite heritage center in Holmes county, one of the men working there was Amish and had traveled to Germany where he witnessed people speaking PA Dutch but they called it Schwabisch. I’m sure there is more than one dialect that sounds like our tongue.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your exciting news with us! It will be interesting to hear about what you will learn about early schooling.

    1. Thank you, Monica, for your kind and supportive thoughts. I have a good feeling about the application too. At the very least, I will have learned a great deal from the application process.

      Yes, I think the Amish dialect has some Schwäbisch and some Pfälzisch. It will be interesting to find out which dialect is closest to the one the Amish use today.

    1. Mary Ann, thank you very much for your blessings and kind thoughts. It means a lot to me when people with a shared heritage are so supportive. Blessings to you in all your endeavors as well.

  10. Oh, Saloma! Wow! Blessings & prayers from now til then, from here to there!! A visit to Europe has for a long time been on my bucket list! Until then, photos & books will suffice. It will be interesting to see what you will unveil! So excited…I can feel it in my bones…:)

    1. Mary Ellen, thank you so much for your excitement and support. I hope you get to go to Europe.

      I will certainly supply people with photos… I will write weekly blog postings to keep people updated on my work.

      Happy Spring, and thank you again.

  11. Saloma, I really hope you will win the Fulbright. I am most interested in what you will learn. I hope I can meet you sometime when you are in Germany if you come. I live in the Netherlands and there should be some way to get connected. I am originally from Michigan and have lived in Holland almost 49 yrs. It sounds so exciting!!!
    God bless! Mary Maarsen

    1. Mary, I will CERTAINLY find a way to meet up with you if I make it to Germany. It is so exciting, and you could help me find my way around Holland, for I will certainly want to visit.

      Thank you for your positive thoughts and your prayers and Blessings to you too, Mary!

  12. This is wonderful, Saloma. Sounds like you already have made great strides in your research and have readers here who can help as you continue to learn. It’s exciting to catch your enthusiasm. And I personally want to know the answer to your question. I’m sure you are aware of the high educational levels of the original Zwingli followers. From Wikipedia: Conrad Grebel is thought to have studied for six years at the Carolina, the Latin school of the Grossmünster Church in Zürich. He enrolled at the University of Basel in October 1514. While there he studied under Heinrich Loriti, a noted humanist scholar. His father acquired a stipend from Emperor Maximilian for Conrad to study at the University of Vienna. In 1515 he began attending there and remained until 1518. While there, Grebel became close friends with Joachim Vadian,[2] an eminent Swiss humanist professor from St. Gall. After spending three years in Vienna he returned to Zürich for about three months. His father acquired a scholarship for Conrad from the King of France to attend the University in Paris. He spent two years in study there, and joined the boarding academy of his former teacher in Basel, Loriti. In Paris Grebel engaged in a loose lifestyle, and was involved in several brawls with other students. When Grebel’s father received word of his son’s demeanor, he cut off Conrad’s funds and demanded that he return to Zurich. Conrad Grebel spent about six years in three universities, but without finishing his education or receiving a degree.

    In 1521 Grebel joined a group gathered to study with Huldrych Zwingli. With him they studied the Greek classics, the Latin Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. It was in this study group that Grebel met and became close friends with Felix Manz.

    1. Shirley, thank you for your support. Yes I was aware of the high education level of many of the first-generation Swiss Brethren, but not quite in the details you describe here.

      Claus Peter Clasen, who has written extensively about the social history of the Anabaptists, wrote in his book, “Anabaptism; a Social History, 1525-1618” that soon after the founding of the faith, especially after many of the founders were martyred, Anabaptism began attracting peasants and the lower classes. He claims that they eschewed higher education fairly early on.

      There are those who claim that the Anabaptists began believing that higher education leads to aggression and injustice because many of their oppressors were well-educated.

      I’m sure there are many theories about where and why the Amish began eschewing higher education. But no one has actually researched this question, which is exactly why I feel compelled to do so.

  13. We are so excited and can`t wait to hear more about it in 3 weeks. :-) I really hope you will win the Fulbright. :-)

    1. Thank you Miriam. It will be a wonderful thing to meet you in person in a few weeks. We’ll get lots of time to anticipate the Fulbright grant when you get here.

      Gute Reise!

  14. This is fantastic news,Saloma! I can tell your heart and soul is in this project..Surely this will be a labor of love as it stems from your roots. It seems like a huge undertaking but you seem to be well on your way to making it happen.German is such a tough language to learn. Wayne’s son lives in Ulm. Germany and is married to a German woman. They have three sons. We hope to go visit one of these years. I’m excited to follow your progress and wish you every success. I can’t imagine you not being chosen.

    1. Kathleen, thank you for your kind thoughts and feelings. It is indeed a labor of love… even as I do the background research and prepare my proposal.

      Perhaps if you visit Germany while I’m there, we should get together. (Funny, we only live a few hours apart… why don’t we get together?)

      Thank you so much for your good wishes. And I wish you success in all your endeavors as well.

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