Saturday, May 28, 2005

The [Amish] house always wins

Last night, Christina and I watched "Devil's Playground", a documentary about a portion of Amish life called "rumspringa" [which means "running around" in Pennsylvania Dutch; funnily enough, that's exactly what it means in Swabian too]. When Amish teens turn 16, they're allowed to go out into the rest of the world [ie the devil's playground], to go and try whatever it is they want, for however long they want, and then decide whether to join the Amish church or not. Sounds like an enlightened way of doing things, right ? Don't force anybody into the religion but let them choose for themselves, that sort of thing. And it seems like a pretty good strategy: according to the documentary, 90% of Amish teens choose to return to the Amish church.

Turns out the deck is totally stacked. The most obvious hurdle is that if you're used to being part of a close-knit family and community, have never driven a car, gone to the mall, watched TV etc and are then suddenly thrust into modern American culture, you're going to experience serious culture shock; that alone may be enough to send you scuttling back into the safe culture and environment you grew up in. The far more insidious thing, though, is that Amish kids [of the Old Order Amish] have to leave school after 8th grade, because the Amish believe that education leads to pride.

The upshot of this is that, at 16, Amish kids are let loose and they spend a bunch of time livin' hard and fast -- partying, trying out drugs etc, trying to cram in as many new experiences as possible. Then, after a few months/years of the rockstar lifestyle, they start asking the "what next ?" question, which is where I think harsh reality sets in. And that harsh reality is that with an 8th grade education, you're not going anywhere fast nowadays; you're pretty much condemned to a lifetime of menial, low-wage jobs. The two choices they have are thus either permanently being on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in the uncertain outside world, or going back to a culture that emphasizes community, in which there are no/much fewer class distinctions, with a strong safety net built in. Faced with those options, and the pressure they get from parents, relatives & friends who have chosen the Amish lifestyle, it's not surprising that so many of them choose to "join church" ie become Amish permanently.

What irritates me so much about this is that it seems like a very hypocritical way of going about things. The kids are only given the illusion of choice -- they're [intentionally, one suspects] woefully underprepared for one of the supposed choices they have, making it much more likely that they'll choose the option the Amish community wants. Almost makes you wish for a proper authoritarian cult that doesn't beat about the bush -- "You leave us, you die. Any questions ?"

[This is, of course, a totally off-the-cuff, knee-jerk reaction from me -- some Amish/Mennonite orders do allow their kids to go to high school & college. That doesn't make the ostensible choice offered to teens belonging to the other orders any less hypocritical.]

And to those 10% who choose not to go back: good for you. You're brave. Or you really, really like inventions of the devil like electricity and cars ;-)


Anonymous Bill Tozier said...

And this is not about life in the Academy in any way, right? Even slightly eeny weeny a little bit metaphorically?

7:11 PM  
Blogger Lori and Paul said...

alex, my mom and dad lived in christiana pa and all of their neighbors were amish. anytime you want to visit sadie and jacob and their 9 children just let me know. bizarre bizarre - lori

12:08 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Bill - Touche. Never thought of it like that. That said, there are a couple of pretty clear decision points that are different: what you choose to major in as an undergrad [engineers tend to have more options than English majors] and whether you choose to go to grad school. If you still end up in grad school, or try to become an academic after all that, well, you're getting what you chose/deserve =)

8:14 AM  

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