Teachers In Training
Akron - Ohio
Day trip to the Amish country
We can ear the horses' hoofs knocking on the floor. The snow muffled the noises. It's a snowy day enforcing the idea of isolation. We are in the middle of nowhere, in the countryside.
Two concepts are important in America: community and diversity. To improve our knowledge about this country and to discover a new part of its culture we left the University of Akron a Thursday morning and as we traveled through the country we also traveled through the time. If you have ever watched the Little house in the prairie you would not be lost among the Amish.
Very far from what we call the American way of life. And yet, we are in the American way of life: the freedom to live the way you want. There is a big gap in terms of space and time. But even if they seem to be the weirdest community here they also represent the U.S. society in a kind of way: a big parking for cars and buses verges on the site for buggies. Big farms we can't see any more in this country since the early nineteenth century are not far from the store where you can buy souvenirs, some of them are home made. This is the paradox of that community. It refuses modernity and at the same time, it can't do without it. The community has to make concessions, sacrifices.
There are lots of different Amish communities in North America. In 2000 they were 198 000 in United States, 55 000 of those live in Ohio, where we found the largest community. They are all independent and organized like a congregation. We can almost consider themselves as an ethnic group, which has in common German and Swiss ancestries. Most of the Amish today descend from the 18th century immigrants.
Let us come back to the field trip…Seated in the bus we do not really know what to expect? What are we going to do and who are we going to meet? Divided between two feelings
1- Worried: are we visiting a human zoo?
2- Excited: what kind of life is the Amish's one?
Crossing the country we go down to Berlin to visit the Amish & Mennonites visitor center. There, we faced the Amish way of life: as historians we recognize that they are still living in the 19th century. Most of them still refuse everything that come from the contemporary world like electricity or cars. It's especially because they don't want to be linked to the "English" world. But sometimes, they produce their own electricity with generator without being link to the outside power lines. They use non-electric versions of vital appliances, such as kerosene-powered refrigerators. Telephones are also forbidden, for the most part. It's felt like an intrusion of the outside world in their privacy. So refusing modern society is more a question of separation from the present world than a reject of modernity itself.
The two words which fit well to the Amish are "sobriety" and "solidarity".
Sobriety is a way of thinking and also a way of living. For instance, jewelry and sophisticated clothes are proscribed for men and women. Dress codes are very strict. Women wear calf-length plain-cut dresses in a solid color such as blue. Aprons are often worn, usually in white or black, at home and always worn when attending church. A cape which consists of a triangular shape of cloth is usually worn beginning around the teenage years and pinned into the apron. In the colder months, a long woolen cloak is sported. Heavy bonnets are worn over the prayer coverings when Amish women are out and about in cold weather. They are not allowed to cut their hair seeing that they are married. Men typically wear dark-colored trousers and a dark vest or coat, suspenders, broad-rimmed straw hats in the warmer months and black felt hats in the colder months. Single men have to be shaved. But when they get married, they grow a beard. In most cases, moustaches are not allowed because they remind the military and upper class fashion to wear moustaches.
As for the clothes, social control is very strict. Relationship between men and women are strictly organized. It is dictated by the Ordnung which is the Amish rules of living. It can be different according to the communities. Submission of the woman to her husband is the rule. Divorce is strictly forbidden.
After learning all these details about the Amish we wanted to meet them in person. And that's what we did. We were expected in an Amish restaurant for lunch. This place was owned by a couple and they were helped by the wife's mother. The Amish are famous for their cooking because it's Home made and as we started to eat we all agreed with this idea because it was very good. The couple was welcoming and opened to our questions.
We learnt more about this community by talking to our hosts. Usually families have more than 5 children. Kids go to school from kindergarten to 8th grade. As we were talking about schooling our teachers told us that we had to leave because we were expected in an Amish School.
As we came in the one-room schoolhouse lost in a field we met the teacher. She was Mennonite but dressed as an Amish. She explained to us the goals of the Amish education: being able to read the Bible, being able to read the Amish Newspaper and being able to own your farm or your restaurant. They study English, algebra, history, especially the history of their community. These required bases explain why school stop after the 8th grade. Amish kids do not need to go to High School and Colleges. Between 14 and 21 years old, the young adults are allowed to leave their parents and emancipate themselves from the community rules. They can drive cars, smoke or drink alcohol. After that, they have to choose between coming back to the community and leaving the Amish way of life. But if they leave, they can't ever come back to the community. They are considered as strangers. Nobody in the community is allowed to speak to them anymore.
For those who stay in the community they mostly get married very young and it is usual to live the first years of marriage in the parent's house.
Solidarity is also an important word in the Amish community. For instance, when a family needs a new house, all the community helps to built it. They have no system of insurance. The community takes care of each person who needs it. Widows, orphans and sick can rely on the members of the community. Basically the Amish are divided in small communities lead by a bishop. Usually it is composed by 3 or 4 families and on Sunday they gather in a barn to worship.
As we kept learning and visiting about this community we went to a pig auction with Abe, an Amish public relation person. He took us to this barn where the smell was untenable but this kind of auction is very important here because the Amish way of farming is famous and respected because they still do it without modern machinery. It is "organic agriculture".
I came back a few weeks later to the Amish country to visit a family related to my host family. They invited me for a snack and let me ask them all the questions I could have about their community. Their home made ice cream and pecan pie were fabulous. And this family was very welcoming. The parents had five children, one was just married, one lived in an Amish community in Florida, the two followers worked with their parents and the last one just had a baby but there was no father for this baby…which is very unusual! The other unusual thing about this family is that all of them had a cell phone and the battery is plugged in to the generator. This second visit was very interesting because I met non official people, I visited a family and I understood how diverse was the Amish community throughout the country. Each small community follows the rule that the bishop settles. If he thinks that cell phones should be allowed but not cars, the community follows.
The Amish community is, from my point of view, a small picture of the U.S.:
First, as we saw, the community is very important because everything is based upon this small social group but then, diversity is also a key word for that community because every community is as diverse as we have different bishops.
Secondly, I think the US society is in many points contradictory, here with the Amish we have the most anti-modernity community inside the most modern country in the world. Amish could be very old fashioned for cars or electricity or way of farming but as I saw the Family with their cell phone I was very surprised!
And last point the Amish, even if they are very religious, very puritans and very anti modern way of living, they mainly live on business with "the English": restaurant, auctions, furniture, etc.
By Clémence and Elodie