We tend to think that certain people are immune to the disarray that characterizes, for most of us, the landslide of modern society. This immunity is comforting proof that, even after 9/11, a few sacred symbols remain that are resistant to tarnish and taint.
Though they are probably tired of such bothersome freight, the Old Order Amish occupy such a place of serene light. We, and they, know they are not perfect, and that their quiet society has its share of trials and disappointments. Yet their tenacious hold on a life imbued with careful values is an inspiring ideal, if at times a masque of contradictions.
The past quarter-century has been particularly difficult for the Amish. Their witness to rural simplicity has been picked and pulled, and pressures to conform to the outer society — even in small ways — have taken a toll.
Thirty years ago, the Amish may have come closest of all to the destruction of their society, when their refusal to send their children to public school beyond the eighth grade resulted in several civil actions. The watershed among these — the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision of 1972 — was nothing if not a minor deliverance for the Amish. When the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the Amish way of education — taught in one-room country schools by Amish teachers — it assured the continued viability of Amish society. Had the case gone another way, or if compromises had weakened Amish ability to shape their own lifestyle, who knows what might have happened?
Since 1972, other defining moments have come and gone, and the future likely holds more, especially as Amish life continues its slow and inevitable negotiation with progress. If the Amish keep going as they are, they may find themselves in exactly the same dilemma as other Plain groups that have had to grapple with a new spectrum of options and opportunities.
The next defining moment for the Amish, certainly in terms of education, may come in discerning whether to pursue schooling past eighth grade. In recent years, the Hutterian Brethren have experienced a shift similar to the one being felt by the Amish, with more of their communities embarking on enterprises — such as manufacturing — with little or no tie to farming. In many Hutterite colonies, high school education is becoming more common, and in some communities, members might even be sent for college training.
With rare exceptions, the Amish have resisted such innovations, but we have to wonder how long they will want to hold to this same course. In some of the professions Amish people are involved with now — such as accounting — continuing education and recertification are periodically required, and the Amish have cooperated. But as the shift toward business and other professions continues, more discernment on this question will be required.
Of course, only the Amish can deeply grasp their own way of life. We who look on from the outside can only guess at the subtleties and resilience of such an existence, even while witnessing its fragility. However, we may be about to see another defining era in the history of the Amish, as this culture known for its traditional values struggles to grow beyond some of its long-established boundaries.
How the Amish weather this time ahead may say as much about us as it does about them. For the Amish may be traveling this way of change and survival by themselves now, but it is a path that all Anabaptists have found themselves on at one time or another. What counsel have we to offer?
This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.