Sometimes, approaching a familiar topic from an unexpected angle provides perspective. When a writer presents a peek into an unfamiliar culture and he is motivated by interest rather than by an agenda, he offers that opportunity. A book I recently read, Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish by Joe Mackall gave me not only a glimpse into the highly traditional Swartzentruber Amish community, but unexpectedly set me thinking in new ways about segments of the Jewish population as well.
As a neighbor of the Shetler family, developing mutual trust and affection over the course of years, Mr. Mackall writes about his friends and their lives from his outside position. It is clear that he values much of
what he sees, including their self-sufficiency, community support and deep faith. Much of their lives is alien to his ‘normative’ way of thinking, yet he doesn’t succumb to being negative about
something simply because it is different from his own path. When he does respectfully reveal some reservations, the reader is drawn along as he reasons through his ideas.
The area where Mr. Mackall faces greatest internal conflict revolves around the dilemma of members of the Swartzentruber community who choose to leave. While the overwhelming majority of children upon reaching maturity pattern their own lives on those of their parents, there are those who choose an alternate path. Relating to children who reject your belief system is difficult for any parent and among the Amish the reaction can seem harsh in our ‘anything goes’ society. However,
what particularly intrigued me was the author’s thought process as he tried to
sort out his feelings about an unusual impediment placed in these youths’ way. Since
the education provided by the community is lacking by general society’s standards, the ‘rebels’ are missing skills needed to thrive in the outside world. In addition to the emotional toll, the practical roadblocks to successfully leaving the community are many.
There are Hassidic sub-groups within the religious Jewish world (sometimes incorrectly referred to as ultra-Orthodox) who similarly cap their children’s learning at points that leave the students with poor mastery of the English language along with ignorance of information necessary for
living in the modern world. Their children, too, are tremendously challenged if
they decide to live a more mainstream lifestyle. Being less emotionally
connected to the Swartzentruber saga than I might be with Jewish groups, this
book helped me think about this predicament in more of an intellectual rather than an emotional way. (One caveat I do have is that the Amish reject government funding in general and I assume this goes as well for their schools. Government funding always comes with strings or gets corrupted and education is no exception.)
It is easy to have an immediate knee-jerk reaction, “Parents shouldn’t be allowed to limit their children’s education,” but, in reality, every parent does so. My children may have been exposed to Shakespeare and the history of the French Revolution, but they have no skills in animal husbandry or years of training in woodworking. Some kids have years of music lessons while others spend similar hours on sports or in front of a large screen TV. Is it more harmful to withhold trigonometry than to withhold a spiritual and
religious view of the world, as secular parents often do? As a society, why would we accept that parents and schools might teach that abortion is harmless and capitalism is evil, but not grant parents and schools the choice to limit exposure to certain literature? Is it harder for an eighteen year old to catch
up on English and science skills or to undo the harm from a premature introduction to sexuality?
The reality is, that every parent picks and chooses among a limitless array of ideas and skills that he can present. The fact that the majority of a culture may agree on certain requirements does not mean that those choices are necessarily more valuable than others are. Leaving aside blatantly abusive or disturbed parents , do we really expect government chosen standards todo a better job than parents in nurturing children and adequately preparing them for life? Those youth who leave the Swartzentruber community do need to work hard to establish a new life, much as immigrants do. Paradoxically, had
they been better equipped for living in the mainstream when they were growing up, they would have missed many of the benefits they did receive.
I have read and relished some truly thought-provoking books in the past few months. This book is one of those that lingers in my mind. What books set you thinking?
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