For some people, small, one-room schoolhouses are iconic markers of Amish culture, along with conservative clothing, horses, and buggies, but in fact the educational practices of the Amish vary widely. David L. McConnell and Charles E. Hurst, both professors at the College of Wooster in Ohio, have written an outstanding overview of the way Amish education has developed since Wisconsin v. Yoder, the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1972 that cemented the rights of the Amish to educate their children in their own fashion. The focus of their study is the Greater Holmes County, Ohio, Amish Settlement, located about 90 minutes south of Cleveland.
The authors visited a dozen Amish schools and three public elementary schools, they participated in numerous Amish activities, and they surveyed 65 Amish adults from three distinct affiliations. They developed their investigation after years of personal contacts and friendship-building with members of the Amish community.
They find that two-thirds of the Amish parents in the Holmes County area send their children to their own parochial schools. The vast majority of these parents say they send their children to the private schools because they feel that approach will ultimately help their children become normal Amish adults. As one parent told the authors, “we have the freedom of teaching the children what we want them to be taught.” Another added that, in the public schools, “there is a lot of emphasis on things that really do not fit well with our way of life” (p. 241).
Three quarters of the parents the researchers surveyed felt that elements of the public schools, such as computers, videos, and TV, were harmful to the children. Others emphasized that discipline in the public schools had deteriorated, and parochial school students learned better how to respect one another. The Amish parents especially like the small sizes of the parochial schools, the pragmatic curriculums that emphasize practical subjects, and pedagogical approaches that focus on drilling and memorization. They approve of the fact that the teachers do not assign homework.
The authors were also struck by the gendered nature of the private schooling. The school boards that control the schools are all male, while the teachers are almost always all female—usually young, unmarried women. But seating in the schools, and the curriculums, are not gendered. Girls study the same materials as boys, and participate equally in outside games such as softball during recess.
McConnell and Hurst also noted that the teachers tend to be especially concerned with social issues among the students. They observe and react to students that do not participate properly or that disobey authority. They do not allow the students to linger after the school bell has rung, nor do they permit students to mock others.
The parochial schools are generally run by groups of parents who live in the same neighborhoods, not by the church districts. The result is that parents from different overlapping church affiliations, who may or may not even be in fellowship with one another, will still send their children to the same schools. The arrangements are quite pragmatic. It would not be economically justifiable for each district to erect its own school. The result is that the parochial schools serve as vehicles for building friendships and communications across the different Amish affiliations, despite the differing religious doctrines held by the families.
The schools vary widely in facilities and staffing. Some are relatively prosperous, while others are quite spare. One building has only a rusty water pump and outhouse, while another has four classrooms, piped water supply, gas lighting, fire alarms, and excellent facilities overall. The schools depend on the generosity of the donors of the land on which the schools are built and on the resources of the parents that own and control them. The personalities, abilities, and backgrounds of the teachers also vary widely.
The authors examine the other alternatives that some Amish choose for their children, particularly public schools and home schooling. The major reason that parents choose to send their youngsters to public schools is the perception that the world is changing, the nature of the jobs their children will have as adults are changing, and the public schools can better equip young people for future realities. Fewer and fewer Amish are able to go into farming, so job prospects in the surrounding area are a concern. Some parents feel that the quality of instruction in the public schools is better than in the parochial schools.
Many of the parents who send their children to the public schools also own shares in the local parochial schools. This shows their support for their local church-related schools, and it gives them the option of pulling their kids out of the public schools at any time.
Some Amish realize there is a danger in sending their children to public schools, where they will be exposed to situations that they strongly condemn. In one school, Amish children were exposed to a talk by a soldier who had recently returned from Iraq, the sort of discussion the parents oppose.
Homeschooling, another option, is rare among the Old Order Amish in the Holmes County Settlement, though a few New Order Amish are adopting it. The reasons include dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction in the parochial schools. The parents believe that homeschooling builds family bonds better than sending children to school, even to their own local parochial schools.
The researchers also investigated whether or not the Amish are starting to allow their children to be educated beyond the 8th grade. The answer still seems to be that they are not. The Amish parents believe that a higher education tends to build pride. That can be bad, they feel, since it might give people “the sense of feeling that you’re better than someone else” (p.248). Yet the Amish do enjoy and appreciate education, and they are often sad when their school days end. Some go on for advanced training in practical skills, and many become avid patrons of the Ohio public libraries.
McConnell, David L. and Charles E. Hurst. 2006. “No ‘Rip Van Winkles’ Here: Amish Education Since Wisconsin v. Yoder.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 37(3): 236-254