The 1975 PBS documentary The Amish: A People of Preservation* written and directed by and featuring all males––all Mennonite except one––shows an idealized version of practicing Amish life. It emphasizes the simpler aspects of life, such as playing games, attending horse auctions, and children frolicking in the fields. However, there’s a more insidious undertone. As the smooth-voiced narrator describes Amish children, he represents their subpar education as a “commitment” to their religion. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
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This subpar education fuels a cycle of ignorance, created because of the parents’ (more specifically, the father’s) desire to control their children. When the scene about education starts, the narrator says, “Here, the father can become confident that his teaching at home is not canceled out by his children’s education.”
The narrator stresses that the parents are the ones raising their children, not the state, and therefore they should have complete control of their children’s education. While this might sound reasonable, most non-Amish parents fighting for this right don’t argue to remove their children from school prematurely. This quote also shows that the Amish father ultimately controls every aspect of the child’s life, including their thoughts. Usually, children use school as an outlet to be away from their parents, but in this case, home and school are intertwined.
It doesn’t help that Amish teachers are young, usually in their teens or early twenties, with an 8th-grade-only education themselves. Nearly all are girls or young women and none of them are state-certified and . . .
. . . educated in child psychology or early childhood development. The narrator says, “The teacher is usually a young woman with a grade school education who has shown aptitude in learning.” That means that a woman with no voice in the community is used as a mouthpiece for the fathers and all-male clergy to project what they want onto the children.
This woman also lacks knowledge on most topics because she has had the same inadequate education as everyone else in the community. That doesn’t matter, however, because “learning or reading is seen as detrimental, as they do not prepare a person with the practical skills and tastes needed for life in an Amish community.” Physical labor and keeping your mouth shut are the most important.
The documentary then discusses the role of peer groups on a teenager’s mind. “Between the time when parents yield their control over their children’s minds, by the time the community takes over, the peer group is of extreme importance.” There’s no difference between the parents or the peer group. If the parents control everything the children learn, then the children are spouting everything they pick up from the adults. The presence of just Amish children helps to reinforce the same dogmatic lessons taught by the parents and the Amish Church.
Lots of children grow up to follow what their parents do. This is especially detrimental to Amish women. One quote in the documentary says that “as long as a girl wishes to be [practicing] Amish, she finds women’s liberation ridiculous.” Wanting to pursue another path in life will automatically and instantly psychologically isolate a girl from her peers. The peer group can be detrimental to those with different thoughts and desires; having no support system can and does damage a child.
According to the documentary, when a teenager is “of age” (in this unique context, completes the 8th grade), they get to “decide” when to leave school. This isn’t a decision or choice that an Amish teen is allowed to make. Instead, Amish children are forced to stop attending school after the 8th grade. This is endorsed by the 1972 US Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, which ruled that Amish parents may restrict their children’s education to the 8th grade and furthermore, may prohibit their children from learning anything that the religion disapproves of.
“By the time Amish children are 14, most of them prefer to leave school for practical vocational activities. Their families need them economically, and that gives them a sense of worth.” These statements by one of the documentary’s (all-male) non-Amish “experts” are blatantly false. Again, Amish children are stripped of any say as to their education. They don’t have a choice to continue school, because Wisconsin v. Yoder took away their right to educate themselves––and subsequently took away their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, an Amish child’s “sense of worth” isn’t connected to the economic demands of their father or family. Rather, an Amish child’s worth revolves around whether they’re “good” or “bad”, as determined by the religion’s mandates/laws and parents’ demands and wishes in all areas of life. In the extremely rare case that a child or young adult pursues an education outside of what the Amish Church approves, they’re shunned and/or excommunicated.
When speaking about upgrading farming equipment, the narrator says that “[the practicing Amish] sense just how much change their community can support without coming apart at the seams but avoid getting onto the uncontrollable escalator of progress.” To paint progress as something negative shows how the Amish are unwilling to change their thought processes for the benefit of their children’s futures. But describing progress as an “uncontrollable escalator” reveals even more about the biases and agenda of the documentary’s (again, all-male) writers and directors. The makers of the film value a, as seen in Amish society, patriarchal and 1800s or turn-of-the-twentieth-century society above all else. The Amish religion’s rejection of progress includes rejection of women’s, children’s, and LGBTQIA+ people’s rights, which is something that the writers and directors also reject and promote.
In summary, the Amish can continue to avoid technology, change, and progress, but refusing to educate their children is tantamount to child abuse.
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