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Amish Education & Work

Lancaster, PA Amish Education and Work

Home, school, farm and workplace are tied together through family for the Amish in Lancaster PA. This type of economic function, with the family and its members working as a unit within the supporting Amish community, creates a strong bond and gives each worker a clear and vital " place" through the work he or she performs.

Formal Amish education only lasts through the eighth grade. There is no option to attend modern public school, nor a higher education institution.

The Amish in Lancaster, PA build and maintain their own church-funded, one-room schoolhouses, where children study a curriculum that emphasizes basic skills - reading, writing, spelling, geography and practical math, plus both English and German. Each school houses an average of 30 students, which are within walking distance of their homes. Teachers are typically single Amish women who are chosen by a local school board of parents for their academic ability and commitment to religious values and Amish views.

Formal Amish education only lasts through the eighth grade. There is no option to attend modern public school, nor a higher education institution. The Amish in Lancaster, PA believe that either of these options would pull children away from their community's families and church traditions, threatening their values with individualism, competition, rational thinking and secularism. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court officially ruled that the Amish could not be forced into compulsory high school education and sanctioned their system of one-room schools and education through the eighth grade.

Because the Lancaster, PA Amish believe that classroom learning represents only half of the knowledge needed to make one's way as an adult, farming and homemaking skills are an extremely important part of a child's education. Therefore, after formal schooling is completed, Amish children typically receive some vocational schooling, or "education by doing," once a week. They learn about the operation and techniques of farming, or the trade of their father. Boys start helping out with plowing and other related jobs at an early age, and girls work with their mother and sisters.

Amish Family Work Roles

With an average of seven or eight children per Amish family, each member plays a part in the family's economic survival. On a Lancaster County farm, an individual's work and responsibilities directly affect the family. Each person is less an individual and more a member of the family, with responsibilities that contribute. A "paycheck" comes daily in the form of food, clothing, shelter and affection.

Chores are fairly clearly divided by gender role in the Lancaster Amish home. Men usually work on the farm, with women helping from time to time, if needed. Men are also mainly in charge of financial matters, while women do the cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. Children grow up identifying with the parent of their gender. Boys tag along behind their father, and girls stay indoors to help their mother. There are, of course, many exceptions to this, but men are to be the head of the household. Men and women accept these roles as given to them by God, with the mindset being that women are not inferior to men, but subordinate.

Amish Farming in Lancaster County

While farming was not an integral tenet of Anabaptism, agriculture has always been a major part of the Amish lifestyle. Believing that practical knowledge, hard work and long hours are the "technological marvels" that make farm life fruitful, the Amish in Lancaster, PA practice impressive levels of thrift and self-sufficiency, which they believe are mandated by the Bible. Farming is not merely a job or career; it is viewed as a way of life anchored in Scripture, blessed by God and handed down over the generations by Amish ancestors. It provides a seedbed for nurturing strong families in the values of hard work, frugality, responsibility, simplicity and family cooperation.

Horses are a trademark identity of the Lancaster Amish and their farming, used to plow, cultivate and harvest crops. Tractors are commonly used on Amish farms in Lancaster, PA, but only for power around the barn - to blow silage to the top of large silos, power feed grinders, spin ventilating fans and the like. They are not used for field work. Why the distinction? Over the decades since the invention of the tractor in the early 1920s, several versions were rejected for field use, most notably because of the fear that their self-propelled, mobile nature would surely lead to cars. Moreover, using horses in the fields helps to limit the size - and corresponding cost - of Amish farms, thereby promoting equality and protecting the small family farm. Horses also maintain a slower farming pace, preserving jobs that are the heartbeat of the Lancaster, PA Amish community.

Over time, additional farm equipment with independent powers sources (such as wagons, corn planters, plows and sprayers) was permitted on the fields to increase productivity, as long as it was adapted for horse-drawn use. Pulling such modern machinery with horses is a compromise that preserves the Lancaster Amish tradition and identity while allowing just enough progress for farmers to remain competitive.

Amish Industry: the Shift From "Plows to Profits"

As most visitors to Pennsylvania Dutch Country quickly notice, a large number of the Amish in Lancaster, PA earn a living in non-farming occupations. Amish shops selling everything from quilts to gazebos dot the countryside. What were the factors behind this shift from "plows to profits," and how is it affecting Lancaster Amish culture today? The beginnings of this shift actually had something to do with farming changes among the non-Amish.

Horse-drawn equipment became increasingly scarce after 1940, as more American farmers began using tractors. Consequently, several Amish mechanics opened machine shops to refurbish horse-drawn implements, and welders and mechanics began producing parts to repair the equipment. Taking a major turn, they also began buying equipment designed for tractors and adapting it for use with horses. Thus, somewhat ironically, the Amish in Lancaster, PA were nudged into business in order to preserve their horse farming in the face of a booming agriculture business enamored with tractors.

By the 1970s, making a living by farming was becoming more difficult. The increasing Amish population, coupled with decreasing farmland and higher prices, made getting started difficult or impossible for some. Others found the payments on the farm, building, loans, mortgages and interest a hardship. One alternative was to move to another area where farmland was available and cheaper. Others looked at ways to supplement their income by having a family member work out for others, sometimes on a carpentry crew, as a farmhand, or as a cleaning lady in homes of non-Amish. But of most concern to the Amish in Lancaster, PA was the concern of known as the "lunch pail" problem - the possible necessity of having to work in a factory. They were concerned about work that involved going outside the family and community for economic survival, fearing it could drive a wedge into the family and cause disruption.

A good compromise between farming and factories came to be in the 70s and 80s - that of Amish manufacturing shops and cottage industries. During this period of explosive business growth, Amish entrepreneurs ventured into industry within the Lancaster Amish community, then to non-Amish neighbors, then to tourists. Over the years, they have found that Amish industry has enriched community life. Work remains near the home, family members often work together, and financial resources are kept within the community. Moreover, Amish control eliminates Sunday sales, fringe benefits, adverse personnel policies and other influences that sometimes accompany factory employment.

Four types of Amish industries in Lancaster, PA consume much of work that is done away from the farm:

  1. Cottage industries located on farm or beside home: crafts, repair work, light manufacturing
  2. Large shops: farm machinery, lawn furniture, storage sheds, etc.
  3. Mobile carpentry and construction crews: contruct homes, install kitchens, build silos
  4. Retail stores: sell hardware, appliances, clothing, furniture, quilts and crafts for the PA Amish community, non-Amish neighbors and tourists

    Amish shops in Lancaster, PA produce an amazing variety of products and services. Woodworking trades comprise the largest cluster of enterprises - furniture building, cabinet making and storage barn and gazebo construction, as well as more general woodworking activity. Smaller wood products, such as doghouses, birdhouses, cupolas, picnic tables, and lawn furniture also flow from Lancaster Amish shops. The small storage sheds widely distributed in several states are another popular product of Amish carpentry shops.

You can see and purchase hand-made Amish quilts, Amish furniture and other Amish crafts at many of the local shops throughout Lancaster County.

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