The Amish Educational System

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There are many assumptions that frame our current education systems, and whilst often these are ultimately supported by empirical research, some theories have been challenged by various studies. For example, recent studies have challenged the idea that educational experiences are the main contributor to cognitive abilities. Murray and Hernstein, in their book The Bell Curve, suggest otherwise, claiming that at least sixty percent of cognitive abilities are genetic (Murray 1995). Similarly, with the ever-increasing emphasis on more and more education in our society, examination of those groups who do not subscribe to such contexts can shed light on the validity of these assumptions in education.

The main objective of this research is to identify and examine any advantages to stopping formal education at the age of fourteen. Whilst research will concentrate primarily on the Amish, their unique culture skews any findings of this research to other cultural groups. This raises a number of additional questions to be considered. How does learning differ in primary and secondary children, and how can alternative experiences to formal schooling in the secondary years be of greater benefit? What role does the reinforcement of education throughout school, home, community, and church, as is prevalent in the Amish community, play? Can findings based on the Amish be extrapolated to other groups outside their unique culture? Nearly one-forth of Amish young people choose to leave their community; do the advantages of their schooling and its stopping at the end of eighth grade have value outside the Amish community?

The Amish, found primarily in the United States but also a number of other countries, present a group that culturally believes in limiting education, as well as exposure to the non-Amish world. Most study of the Amish has centred on such cultural difference, but their views of education are also striking contrary to those of mainstream American education (Ediger 1996). The Amish simple, primarily agricultural lives. Their religion prevents them from having televisions, radios, telephones, cars, or electricity, they do not attend movies or use computers in their schools. Most education takes place in small, all-Amish one-room school houses, many without modern plumbing (Ediger 1998). Amish teachers frown on inductive learning because they already know the correct answer for a question posed to the pupils, and what non-Amish schools would call plagiarism is a generally accepted learning method (Ediger 1996). Of particular importance to this research, the Amish attend school only through the eighth grade.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that Amish children were not required to attend school beyond the eighth grade because it violated the religious beliefs of the Amish community (Reich 2002). The court “concluded that the benefits accrued by students in secondary school to be effective citizens and self-sufficient individuals were not great enough to outweigh the substantial burden imposed upon the Amish by compulsory attendance laws (Reich 2002, 446). They are yet one of the most economically and vocationally successful people groups in the United States. Various demographic data is available from the US and state governments and departments on Amish and other groups. Also , a body of the research into the Amish educational system in the United States has been undertaken by Marlow Ediger, who has been studying the Amish formally and informally for some forty years (Ediger 1998).

It will also be important to consider how cognitive development and learning are effected over the course of both the first years of schooling (through age fourteen), and through the secondary years. Gardner (1991), for example, identifies the difference in learning from early years to the aged seven to twenty period, to later in life. He further presents the theory that there are many types of intelligences, and many of these are not developed through the current educational model. As the Amish stop school to pursue other experiences, many of them vocational or educational in their own way, how expanding educational possibilities is achieved through the limiting of traditional schooling is also a consideration in review of relevant literature.

This research will review research and published demographics on the Amish education system, and on Amish adults in their society and as part of the greater society of the United States. Specifically considered will be the benefits to the Amish of their limited education. The Amish educational system itself is not considered to be limited in this research, although the methods and principles that under-gird their schooling is distinctly different from that of mainstream culture. Rather, the limiting of the period of education, namely ending schooling at the age of fourteen, will be considered.
The Amish education system will be considered in light of several major theories of cognitive development and learning. Other areas where schooling is similarly limited, such as in some countries that end compulsory schooling at fourteen or earlier, and the practise of some home-schooled children in finishing their entire secondary education by this age, may be additionally considered as supporting research as time and resources permit.

One of the primary limitations of this research is the uniqueness of the Amish culture. The close-knit, reinforcing quality of their community is something rarely experienced by those of other cultural groups, and it will be difficult to separate this cultural difference from their educational methods. As such, findings in this research should be viewed as a contribution towards examination of the advantages of limiting education. Other potential limitations may include difficulty in securing demographic information on those raised in the Amish community who have subsequently left, which is considered to be a primary method for examining the Amish education outside the Amish community. It is anticipated that neither of these limitations, however, should they occur, will prohibit valuable research from being conducted.