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October 27, 2003

the Amish and freedom

We're just back from a family weekend in Lancaster, PA—Amish country. It's dispiriting to watch real Amish people walk or trot in waggons past huge Amish-themed tourist attractions. (One store is actually called "Amish Stuff Inc.") Extreme simplicity seems to attract the worst form of consumerism.

The Amish raise a philosophical dilemma that has often been written about. If you believe in freedom, this must include freedom of religion, which means the ability to raise your own children within your faith. Central to most religions are detailed rules or traditions concerning the rearing of children. However, if you believe in freedom, then you must believe in the right of individuals to choose their own values and commitments. Parents can interfere profoundly with such freedom. Indeed, all parents necessarily do. Anyone who grows up in a family is constrained by the legacy of family beliefs and values. (Even those who rebel have been influenced.) However, the tension between parental freedom and children's liberty is especially sharp and clear in cases like the Amish, who prefer to be as isolated as possible from the rest of the world. In particular, they prefer their children to "drop out" of school in late childhood.

This means, on the one hand, that Amish kids lack the skills and breadth of experience necessary to understand or pursue a wide range of alternative forms of life. A book that I skimmed in Pennsylvania claimed that it was "nonsense" to complain about the limits that Amish children face, for those who leave the faith can always find work locally as farm hands. To me, this proves the point.

On the other hand, if we bring children up in a "liberal" way, so as to maximize their ability to make free choices, then they cannot become Amish. Amish culture would be entirely different if most of its members spent their childhood and adolescence in mainstream society. Being Amish means being intentionally naive; it means not knowing much about the corrupt modern world. It means living with a small group of people who all came from the same background, very few of whom leave the fold. And it means valuing communal solidarity more than choice. Thus, if we insist on children's freedom of choice, then we can't let the Amish raise their kids as they want. Not only would this reduce the freedom of each adult generation; it would erase an alternative culture whose existence broadens all of our horizons.

I'm still seeing powerful mental images of Amish farmers walking behind their horse-drawn plows past huge outlet stores. The stores represent "choice" in its most extreme form: millions of affordable items for your house, stomach, and wardrobe. But how much choice do you have if you don't realize that choice is itself an option, and incompatible with some of the best ways of living?

Posted by peterlevine at 12:12 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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