One of the points that the defense in the Wisconsin v. Yoder case made was that Amish children did not need to continue in public school after the 8th grade because the education they were receiving in their communities was equal to the quality of education the general public was receiving. In essence, the Amish were learning the same things at the same level as other American schoolchildren — there was no use in having them reintegrate. In fact, Dr. John A. Hostetler, the Amish-born turned Mennonite researcher of the Amish, claimed that “compulsory high school attendance could . . . result in great psychological harm to Amish children, because of the conflicts it would produce . . . .” (6)

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. . . Because of the conflicts it would produce . . . . This statement was haunting to me. To explain why, I would like to ask a hypothetical question.

As intellectual beings, we humans like learning new things. We teach ourselves to write, to paint, to speak new languages, to rollerskate, to figure out how to . . .

. . . work Microsoft Excel. We like learning about the world around us, about the history of our countries, about our families, and about ourselves. We like a challenge, sometimes — we push ourselves to become physically fit, we have bucket lists, we set goals so that we can shape the kind of lives we want to live. We human beings like stimulation and adventure, and often we find that after learning something new, we feel good about ourselves — we’ve stepped out into the unknown and made it back with a new sense of purpose.

If I learn to write computer code, have I been psychologically harmed by the new knowledge I’ve gained? If I go to college, become educated, use my education to better myself and better the world around me, have I ruined something sacred in me? What if I travel to a new country, make new friends, pick up bits of a new language? Has my experience destroyed the purity of my ignorance? In other words, am I now worthless as a person, because I didn’t keep my innocence intact?

Here is my hypothetical answer: of course not. Not at all. No educated intellectual person, influenced by centuries of Enlightenment-era thought, would ever make that claim . . . except John A. Hostetler, apparently. A man with a literal doctorate from an actual accredited university.

According to John A. Hostetler, a PhD and professor, “high school attendance could result in great psychological harm to Amish children”

So what does Dr. Hostetler mean by “conflicts”? 

There are two possibilities, the first of which I’ve already covered: the cognitive dissonance produced in an Amish school child by gaining new knowledge that might contradict the teachings of their Amish family. Anyone who learns anything experiences cognitive dissonance at some point, even several points, in their life. It might be uncomfortable, scary, even painful. But it does not destroy the brain. 

Mental and spiritual discomfort does not equal mental illness. 

It’s nonsense to suggest that an Amish student being exposed to the broader world will give them psychological damage.

But the second meaning Dr. Hostetler might have when he uses “conflicts” does: the emotional and perhaps even physical conflicts a growing intellectual being might have with a community that intentionally restricts that growth. Being shunned by family, friends, the only community someone has ever known — that could psychologically harm someone.

Between intellectual self-actualization and the safety and support of a loving family, there is a difficult choice. One individual faced with that choice might decide that a secure life in a familiar community with one singular purpose is what is most important to them. Another individual might not see it that way. They might find that particular life unfulfilling. They might even be facing emotional or physical harm; not all families are loving. They might want something completely new and better for themselves, and decide that whatever they will find in the outside world is worth the “conflicts” they will face. It is up to the individual to decide what their life should be.

Dr. Hostetler, in one sentence, takes all choice away. In one sentence, he proclaims that the religious right of the parent includes dictating the entire life of their child. In one sentence, he proclaims that the U.S. government has no right to retrieve an individual — not just a child, but an individual human being — from a situation they did not choose, from ignorance, from exile from American society.

In one sentence Dr. Hostetler proclaims the sovereignty of a religious institution over the inalienable rights of an individual. And in one judgment, the Supreme Court of the United States of America proclaimed him right.

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