Just the Basics

by: Barrett Vahle

Once upon a time, American boys and girls walked to small schoolhouses five mornings a week. They learned reading. Writing, and arithmetic under the watchful gaze and stern tutoring of a single teacher. The primary goal of these rural institutions was not to prepare pupils to venture out into the cities or become professional students. Schools were a means to reinforce family values and to give students practical knowledge that would prepare them for leadership roles in their families and home communities. Emphasis was placed on respect and obedience. The curriculum was a simple one, teaching "facts" instead of concepts and theories. Nothing was wasted; every school activity had an obvious purpose.

Old-fashioned schools are more than just the subject matter on which American grandfathers base their tall tales. True, most one-room public schools have vanished, replaced by huge consolidated districts. In isolated plain communities scattered across the Americas, however, old rural schools are still operated. In fact, in Old Order Amish communities, these schools thrive. The Amish education system is tailored to perfectly suit the needs of a traditional Christian culture.

The Amish primary schools produce students scoring equal to or higher than students from mainstream American institutions on some standardized exams. This comes as a surprise to many Americans who support new progressive curricula. Professional educators are baffled by the degree of academic excellence achieved by Mennonite "scholars" who learn in old-fashioned, simplistic surroundings.

The Amish school is not a superior educational institution. It cannot really be compared to the mainstream school, for its purpose is different. Schools teach life skills. The life skill needed by a student from a communal Amish school are entirely different than those needed by a suburban American kid. The American education system could, however, learn from the ways of the plain sects. Mainstream educators could address some of the reasons why Amish children learn their curriculum so thoroughly.

The curriculum taught in Mennonite schools is a narrow one. They concentrate on mastering the English language and on arithmetic. These subjects are the ones most important in the limited but necessary interactions with the outside world. The three R's are supplemented by some agricultural studies, health, history, geography, and sometimes a little science and art. American schools place nearly emphasis on each of a much wider range of subjects and ideas. The Amish specialization on basic English and math allow the subjects to be taught thoroughly. "The Amish stress accuracy rather than speed, drill rather than variety, proper sequence rather than freedom of choice" (Hostetler 182). Perhaps the American school could step back in time to traditional teaching. Giving students more time to reinforce basic "facts" could strengthen the foundation that supports continuing education.

The straightforward subject matter taught by the Amish is not the only simplified aspect of their educational system. As in every facet of Mennonite society, simplicity in all things is a distinguishing feature of these schools. Classes are not held in expansive buildings equipped with the finest technology and new learning aids. Students meet in one- or two-classroom buildings with no electricity or indoor plumbing. The entire school, grades one through eight, meets and learns together. There is no waste in an Amish school. Time and space are precious and used as efficiently as possible. Perhaps students in these schools are able to concentrate on the subject at hand better than other American students. They have few distractions and keep busy at all times.

In American public schools, the students are extremely diverse. Each personality is molded by a unique combination of family and peer influence, race, religion, and socioeconomic status. Individualism is promoted in these institutions. In an Amish community, where conformity is a necessity of life, students look and behave similarly and are all supposed to share common values. It stands to reason that these students would be easy to teach. The young teacher is sharing her knowledge with a comparatively homogeneous group. She does not have to cater to the needs of each child, but instead to the future needs of the congregation as a whole.

In the Lancaster New Era, journalist Ed Klimuska writes that a boy's education is more to practice being a young Amish man in a safe environment than to learn basic skills." Only in a safe and comfortable school can a Mennonite student learn the peaceful ways of his society. Recent shootings and other acts of violence in public schools illustrate that American students can not feel absolutely safe in the classroom. The Amish people have created as safe of an environment as possible in which to educate their children. Surely the sense of wellbeing that Amish children feel aids in their learning.

Amish communities are based on strong families. The family support provided for Amish school children is enormous. Parents and siblings teach all children the obedience, work ethic, and humility required to complete the eight grades of schooling. Mennonite children show a level of respect for teachers that is rarely found in-society at large. Most American students do have strong family' ties and morals, but the few that have not learned how to interact with peers and teachers cause major interruptions in the classroom. Amish parents must raise well-behaved children. The church demands it. This is another way that the conformity of Amish children to their society's norms limits distractions in school.

The most important relationships in a school setting are those that bind the students. Good or bad, these are the relationships that determine a student's attitude in the classroom. Klimuska writes of a Pennsylvania Amish school, "Mascot Run School operates like a large caring farm family." The peers are so similar and close-knit that they behave much like sisters and brothers. Children have positive attitudes, encouraging their peers to improve and contribute to the strength of the class as a whole. "Individual responsibility, not individual competition, is encouraged. Since a person's individual talents are God-given, no one should be praised if he is a fast learner, nor should he be condemned if he is a slow learner (Hostetler, 185)". Children are not belittled by their peers, as is often the case in public schools. The supportive peer groups found in Amish schools strengthen each individual's will to learn.

Old Order Amish communities do not put faith in worldly knowledge; their faith is saved for God. They recognize that in order to cope with the world around them, they must have a working knowledge of basic math and English. Students thoroughly learn a curriculum focused on real-world application. They study in a plain environment with few distractions and are positively supported by strong families and peer groups.

It is clear that the Amish schools are successful in teaching the subjects that the church deems important. They have tailored their system of education to best meet the needs of a plain community in the modern world. Professional educators should admire and learn from Amish schools.