Education, plain and simple

Visit an Amish school and you step back in time to an age untouched by technology and targets. Pupils leave at 14, teachers are trained for just three days and even the value of maths is disputed. Adi Bloom takes a peek under the bonnet

It is the end of the school day. The blackboard has been wiped clean. The prayer books have been neatly stacked. The Bible, which moments earlier was open for the day's lesson, is closed.

The teacher puts on her apron and begins sweeping the school porch, while the students store their exercise books inside their desks. It is drizzling outside, and as they leave they must pitch their bonnets and straw boaters against the rain. A few are given lifts in horse-drawn carts; most, however, make their way on foot. In front of them, farmsteads and grain silos echo one another into the distance.

It could be the early years of the 19th century. But this is 21st-century Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home to more than 50,000 of the 281,000-strong Old Order Amish community in the US. The Amish are Anabaptists - Christians who believe that baptism should be an adult choice, rather than something parents choose for their children. In 18th-century Switzerland, such beliefs amounted to heresy, so the Amish fled to Pennsylvania, drawn by promises of religious freedom.

Since then, very little seems to have changed in their way of life. Emphasising humility and plain living, the community shuns modern innovations such as electricity and telephones for domestic use (though one Amish teacher contacted for this article keeps a telephone in her shed).

Even buttons and zips are deemed too fancy for Amish life: clothes are fastened using hooks and eyes or poppers. Women wear bonnets and long skirts in plain colours; men wear dark trousers with braces. All married men grow beards, but not moustaches, which are seen as martial.

Yet this picture is slightly misleading. "The Amish are not as behind the times as other people think," says retired teacher Katie Beiler, adjusting her bonnet. "We have modern bathrooms, hot and cold running water. The Amish don't have electricity in their homes, but we have propane gas stoves, water heaters, refrigerators and so on."

When it comes to education, however, there is no ceding to modernity: it is considered an unnecessary frippery. Amish children leave school at 14 and go out to work.

Behind closed doors

Quite what an Amish education looks like is difficult to gauge. Beiler is sitting behind the teachers' desk in a one-room schoolhouse as she speaks. But it is not an actual, working schoolhouse - those are out of bounds to "the English", as outsiders, regardless of ethnicity, are known.

Since the release of 1985 film Witness, in which hard-bitten cop Harrison Ford goes undercover among the Pennsylvania Amish, tourism has been a key source of income in the area. But some tourists fail to realise that Amish country is not a display put on for their benefit and blithely stroll into any school they pass, so newer schoolhouses have been built well away from main roads.

In an attempt to deflect tourist interest, Beiler staffs this mocked-up schoolhouse where, unencumbered by students, she can answer questions. About 30 old-fashioned desks are arranged in rows in front of her: smallest at the front, largest at the back. There is no computer, no interactive whiteboard, not even an overhead projector. Instead, there is a blackboard and a shelf full of classics: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Huckleberry Finn and the Bible among them.

"Since the Amish have their own schools, there's not much exposure to technology," Beiler says. "Also, sex education." She pulls a face. "And they don't have after-school activities. They don't have organised sports and music classes."

When 74-year-old Beiler was a student, all the area's primaries were one-room schoolhouses, and most Amish children simply attended their local state schools. Over time, however, these schools began merging. "My parents didn't want me to go to the big elementary school - too modern," says Beiler, shrugging. "So they put me on the school bus to go to the one-room school still being run as a public school."

The official school-leaving age in the US was raised in 1938 from 14 to 16. This was tacitly ignored when Beiler was young, however, and Amish children in Lancaster County still left school at 14. But in 1953, when she was in 8th grade, which she assumed would be her final year of education, this changed. "Someone in the state capital got smart," she says. "They told these school districts, `Hey, if you don't take care of truancy among the Amish, we're going to withhold state funding.' "

The Amish fought back. At a time when black teenagers in the south of the US endured taunts, violence and death threats in order to establish their right to attend the school of their choice, Beiler's uncle, along with other Amish men across the community, were sent to jail for fighting for their children's right not to go to school.

"Amish fathers were being persecuted," she says. "The Amish people always felt that 8th-grade education was enough. At age 14, an Amish child is: `Hey, I'm ready for real life. I'm out of here.' I liked school, but I wouldn't have thought of going to high school. That's just not the way it's done. Besides, we'd have had to step into a high school where we didn't know anybody and we were different from everybody else."

In Pennsylvania, the Amish community wrote to the governor, offering a compromise: Amish children would spend three hours a week on lessons and 25 hours a week in gainful employment. (The lessons, in reality, amounted to some homework, plus a journal of their working week.) The governor accepted.

But not all Amish live in Pennsylvania. In Wisconsin, home to around 15,000 Amish, the issue dragged on. The Amish asserted that their right to religious freedom outweighed the state's desire to educate their children, and they took their fight to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It found in their favour. The state protested and the case went to the US Supreme Court. In 1972, the court unanimously ruled in favour of the Amish. From then on, Amish children across the US would be free to leave school at 14.

The old ways

Today, there are around 270 one-room Amish schools in the Lancaster area, each with approximately 30 students ranging in age from 5 to 14.

"Most of the children, by the time they're in 8th grade, they're so happy to be out of school," says Katie Stoltzfus. Mother of nine and grandmother of 38, Stoltzfus runs a quilt shop in Lancaster County. "They're just happy to be helping mom and dad on the farm. They're not thinking about going to school. Not that we don't have some extremely bright kids. Some can be extremely smart at school. But I don't think that a top-notch child at school is always the best at getting out there and making a life and a business."

When one school becomes over-full (the Amish believe that large families are God's blessing), locals apply to the church for money to set up a new one. "The schools are different colours, different building materials," says Beiler. "But they come up with the same overall plan." This keeps costs to a minimum.

No paid labourers are employed to construct a school. Instead, everyone in the neighbourhood comes together to build it. To keep the cost of every new school below $40,000 (pound;24,000), a farmer donates an acre of land for the site. Each school then taps into the water supply of the nearest Amish house and uses outhouses, rather than indoor plumbing.

"When I taught, my school looked like this," says Beiler, sweeping her hand around her ersatz schoolhouse. Like all Amish teachers, however, she gave up work when she married. In her case, this was in 1964.

"Nothing has changed a whole lot in our schools since then," says local church minister Eli Lapp. "As far as the curriculum, the building, everything - nothing has changed a whole lot in these years."

Eli Lapp is not his real name: in tribute to Harrison Ford's barn-raising skills, it is the name of a character in Witness. He is the owner of a gift shop, selling Amish handicrafts such as pillows and quilts. He is described by various locals as "talkative" and "open"; confronted with the English, however, he retreats into professions of ignorance and an insistence on anonymity.

"I don't know any schools you can visit," he says. He lives opposite a school; there are several others on the road leading to his house. "I don't know anyone at any schools. No one."

He does, however, echo Stoltzfus' insistence that Amish children are quite happy to finish their education at 14. "We almost never have kids who want to stay on," he says. "We certainly get a lot out of our schooldays. But it's learning by doing from then on."

He pauses and smiles, his guard down for a fleeting moment. "I still don't see the point of maths."

Lapp has served on his local school board several times. The board is a group of five parents, who meet once a month and take school-related decisions. A board meeting is, in fact, in progress at a school near Lapp's shop. Several horse-drawn buggies are parked in the playground. It is impossible to tell what is going on inside - the windows of the schoolhouse are covered with wire mesh. This is partly to prevent nosy tourists from peering in. But it is also a response to the events of 2 October 2006, when a gunman walked into a schoolhouse in Lancaster County, shooting 10 girls and killing five.

A woman's work

In the US, separation of church and state means that any faith school must be privately funded. School board members are therefore responsible for collecting fees from all members of the Amish community, regardless of whether or not they have children in education. Individuals with school-age children pay around $300 (pound;178) a year; those with none pay $60 (pound;35).

Each board is also responsible for monitoring the curriculum and appointing teachers. These are typically women in their early twenties. "The pay isn't good enough to tempt the men," Beiler says. "Men know that they need to make their living for the family. But it's a highly esteemed job among the girls."

New teachers receive three days' training over the summer. And local teachers meet on a regular basis to discuss lesson plans and ideas. "A 15-year-old girl might decide she wants to be a teacher," says Beiler. "She'd take a job as a teacher's helper and she may get paid for that. People could see if she's doing well, and she'll know if she likes it or not. Then, eventually, she might become a teacher. Her parents won't have had to pay for a college education, but her training is just as good."

"I've been off and on the school board many times," says Katie Stoltzfus. "You support the teacher, you try and encourage her, make sure she has all the supplies she needs, make sure the schoolroom has books, that it's heated."

Stoltzfus has established herself - and her business - as a guaranteed stop on bus tours around the area. Her niece, she says, taught in a one-room schoolhouse for 10 years. "Oh, she'd have some stories," she says. She shakes her head. "She won't talk to you, though. She doesn't like talking to outsiders."

A day at an Amish school typically begins with recitation of the Lord's Prayer and a Bible reading. Then there might be a hymn or two; Beiler's songbook includes lyrics for Oh, I Love to Talk With Jesus, Angel of Peace and Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me. At home, most Amish speak an 18th-century German dialect known as Pennsylvanian Dutch ("Dutch" is a corruption of "Deutsch", rather than a reference to the Netherlands). At school, all instruction is in English, though children are taught high German, the language used in church services.

There is no religious education - this is saved for church - but a Christian ethos runs through all lessons. "That's why the Amish want their own schools," says Beiler. "Christian values. Cheating is considered a very big no-no."

Amish schools also cater for children with special educational needs. Some schools have an extra room for these children, but there are also dedicated Amish special schools. "They have Amish girls teaching there, too," says Stoltzfus. "They read books and try to keep up with things."

Stoltzfus' niece was among those special needs teachers. "Teaching school was just something she had a passion for," Stoltzfus says. "She started when she was 18, 19. Just close to Coffin's fruit farm - there's a school back there. There was a special little shed, where she taught the children that had special needs. She wanted a challenge. She wanted more than just being a regular school teacher."

Stoltzfus' niece recently married, however, and therefore gave up her job. The retirement of married women, like the school-leaving age, is never questioned. "I think Amish ladies are well satisfied with their lives. I think Amish ladies have it better than other people. You can stay home and enjoy life. We wouldn't think of postponing a family to have a career." She laughs at the very thought. "Please!"

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