In "Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish," English and journalism professor Joe Mackall writes about his friendship with the Shetlers, Amish neighbors of his in northern Ohio. The Shetlers provide Mackall a window into one of the most conservative of the Amish orders, the Schwartentrubers.
Mackall does not want to use his limited experience of one Amish group, and in particular, one family, to generalize about the "Amish" as a whole, a group which, at 180,000 to 200,000 strong in North America, outnumbers Quakers. In fact, he's at pains throughout his book to distinguish between the different groups within the Amish: Old Order, New Order, Weaver, Swiss, Beachy Amish, etc. He also doesn't want the book to focus on what he calls "appropriation" of the Amish as a means to self-discovery or as convenient symbols for pushing a particular ideology, be it nostalgia for an idealized past or a back-to-nature quest.
What he wants to do is to focus on one family, the Shetlers, and how they live as Amish.
Yet by deliberately separating themselves from us, the Amish can drive us into introspection. Mackall will spend a good deal of the book as a character in his own personal drama, the hapless "English" interacting with the Amish, and as a narrator, he will repeatedly ponder his own mixed response to people who are simultaneously both his friends and his subjects.
How do you view the Amish? I once saw them as quaint oddities on the outer fringes of society. Later, I began to grasp that religion, not rejection of technology or of the twentieth century, was the basis of their community. I recognized that the allure of modernity to them was secondary to supporting and nurturing community. While I could probably never become Amish, they've come to shine for me as an alternative to the way the "rest of us" organize society, a challenge to the notion that the way we do it is the "only" way or the "right" way. Apparently, people can thrive in a very different setting and in a society organized on very different principles. There are other ways to live.
I remember getting lost once with Roger en route from Philadelphia to his parents' house in York. I perked up as we drove by barn after barn, tidy farmhouse after tidy farmhouse and field after field of corn. I felt a deep sense of relief and comfort that so many family farms were still thriving in this country. A little while later, as we passed several buggies, I realized we were in Amish country. I remember feeling both deeply disappointed that these weren't "mainstream" farms and at the same time grateful for the existence of the Amish and the wedge they provide against modernity.
Back to the question: How do you view the Amish? What do you think we can learn, if anything, from them? And if you are Quaker, do you find it surprising that there are more Amish than Quakers in North America?