When you think of "The Amish," what comes to mind?
Horses? Buggies? Long dresses and bonnets? Long beards? No electricity?
Well, yes, there is all of that. But there is so much more to the Amish in America, and here in Michigan, where the Amish population numbers around 11,000.
We wanted to find out more about the Amish, especially what the rest of us might learn from them. Consider this: how does a one-room Amish schoolhouse going only to eighth grade, with only a battery-powered clock in the way of "technology," how do these schools turn out highly successful entrepreneurs whose firms gross annual sales in the million-dollar range?
Gertrude Enders Huntington is a retired professor from the University of Michigan. She is the co-author of "Amish Children: Education in the Family, School, and Community."
Steve Nolt is a professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana and co-author of "The Amish," the companion book to the American Experience documentary on PBS.
They both joined us today to take a closer look at the Amish community.
The Amish community has grown considerably moving into the 21st century, doubling in number every 18-20 years.
“The Amish have large families. Most families have six or seven children on average, some families even have many more than that,” said Nolt. “But it’s not just the large number of children, it’s an increasing retention rate. That is, an increasing percentage of the children of Amish parents choose to join the Amish church and follow the Amish way of life as adults.”
Today, the retention rate is at about 85-90%. Nolt believes the rise of Amish schools and economic change in the Amish community play a large part in this high percentage.
The Amish are frequently thought of as one big, unified group, but that is not the case.
“Usually when we’re talking about the Amish, we refer to those who still drive a horse and buggy rather than own and drive an automobile,” said Huntington. “But there are many different kinds of Amish, different varieties of Amish, and they are awfully related to the Mennonites who have a whole range of strictness also.”
To be Amish means to be a member of the Amish church, which is very localized. Each local church has its own rules regarding dress and technology. With 2,000 local churches in the U.S. and Ontario, there are 2,000 different ways to be Amish.
Concerning technology, an Amish community can accept new technology, reject it, or modify it. Some communities draw a distinction between use and ownership, so it may be acceptable for them to hire someone to drive them or to use a computer in a library, but they cannot own a car or computer themselves.
And how do such successful entrepreneurs emerge from schools that go only to the eighth grade and who do not have any of the technology that the rest of us considers imperative to a good education?
“Children in the Amish schools learn hard work, they learn to be diligent, and they also, I think, get a kind of confidence that they can try anything, even though they supposedly end their education in the eighth grade,” Huntington said. “The attitude is that you keep on learning.”
Often, teens are placed in apprenticeship positions where they are given more responsibility than a teenager in wider society would have. In some Amish communities, young adults have the option to take correspondence courses or the GED. Sometimes an Amish teen will go to high school or college, but according to Nolt those individuals are destined to not be adult members of the Amish community.
In the 1950s, the public was very resistant to the Amish, but today the public is entranced by them.
“We imagine them as our grandparents or as living an ideal life,” said Huntington. “There’s such an emphasis on individualism in our contemporary culture that I think we are nostalgic about the importance of community and social responsibility, which of course the Amish feel very strongly.”
-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom
Listen to the full interview above.