Monday, July 14, 2008

Plain Secrets: Jonas

In Chapter two of Joe Mackall's "Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish," we meet Jonas, a young man of about 20 who has left the Amish community. Jonas will be a recurring figure in the narrative. He is the nephew of Samuel Shetler, Mackall's Amish friend and neighbor.

We learn of the custom of rumspringa, in which Amish youth are encouraged to take a few years and sow their wild oats in the "English" (our) world. However, the strict and conservative Swartentruber Amish do not practice it. At no point do they want their teens or young adults to leave the community.

Jonas, however, has for a long time felt a yearning to be part of the "English" world.

He tries twice before he leaves successfully. The third time works only because he has friends on the outside willing to take him in on a long term basis. But even once "in," he faces huge problems. He has no social security number and no way to establish his U.S. citizenship. Like the other Amish, he left school after the eighth grade and has no high school diploma. He also happens to be functionally illiterate. On top of that, he has little knowledge of the world he's entering. For example, he's never heard of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe. And he can't drive.

Further, he has put his family, to whom he is close, in a difficult position. They are under a great deal of pressure to cut ties with him to make things as difficult as possible for him in the hopes he'll return to the fold.

At the end of the chapter, Mackall sums up Jonas's position as follows:

He would find out just how much there was to understand outside of a closed Swartzentruber Amish life, and learn how many of his ideas of what it took to make it in the English world would be tested. He would feel just how powerful and far reaching the tentacles of the church really were, realize how few resources he possessed to make it in the outside world and understand that his parents would have to choose between their son and their church.

Some say it's unfair of the Amish to stack the deck against their youth by, for example, denying them a social security number or a high school education. But couldn't it be argued that, were the tables turned, our culture could be accused of stacking the deck against our youth's entrance into the certainty, security and ecological balance (I'm deliberately leaving out faith issues) of Amish life? For example, most kids in this culture grow up with little knowledge of farming or sustainability.

Would it be "fairer" for each culture to educate their youth to be able cross more easily into the other culture? Is it really a choice to live in a culture if we're not given an education that would allow us to transition easily into an alternative culture? Or is this not an issue of "fairness" as much as that it would make sense for each culture to "cross train" it's youth in some areas? Would four more years of schooling benefit the Amish? Would a period of time on an old-fashioned farm benefit the "English?" Are such cross overs too "dangerous?" (I would define the Amish danger as the possibility of permanent division of their youth from God; I would define the English danger as too costly an education for too little perceived benefit.) What do you think? What do you think in general of the "trained helplessness" of both cultures?


Regina said...

Hm... the question you pose of "would it be "fairer" for each culture to educate their youth to be able cross more easily into the other culture?" is a difficult one... I mean, it would be nice, I think, esp. for the "english" kids to have a chance to see what living in a self-sustaining community would be like- and I have to say, I think the world we live in sometimes can be awful scary- but I don't know about the word fair. What I mean to say is, it's just always been like this for the Amish- (and for us, possibly)perhaps the overall difficulty in "making" it in the outside world is what keeps so many young Amish from actually attempting it!
It would be interesting to start a program up like they did (or do) with kids from the inner city- sending them out to the country.
I wonder how many kids would "convert" to the other side- from both groups!
I personally would have loved to have spent some time with an Amish family- although I was pretty much raised in the country (but not on a farm) it might have given me a little more confidence in myself. Probably kids from both sides of this issue could use confidence building.
Great questions, Diane, and I don't think I do a very good job of answering them, though!

Diane said...


Yes, I agree that word "fair" is a tough one! Things are what they are. I was trying to get at not judging the Amish for how they raise their children when we limit our children too, only in different ways and we all do it in their best interests!

Regina said...

Yes, exactly- I agree, Diane. I think it would be hard to say something against the Amish for their beliefs when we do exactly the same thing! I guess it's not that we all have to understand each other and want everyone to be the same, just that we all need to learn from one another's strengths and weaknesses and then strive for love.

Anonymous said...

And I would also add that it would be impossible for any group in a multicultural society to prepare its children for successful living in any of the subcultures within that society. It's just not an expectation that we can achieve--and if we can't do it in mainstream education with all the resources we have, how can it be a reasonable expectation for the Amish?