The History of the One-room Amish School-houses

I have been doing a bunch of research on the history of the one-room schools traditionally used by the Amish and Mennonite  communities. Fascinating stuff here; there’s more to it than I had realized, despite my having grown up in the tradition. Here is a paper that I wrote as part of an Honors Project for my Intro to Sociology class.

A Typical School House

The Amish and Mennonites:

A Unique Culture with a Unique School System

November 8, 2012


Educational systems reflect the values of the culture in which they operate. School systems have evolved through the history of the United States. Changing social conditions led to the formation of a unique system serving the Amish and Mennonite subcultures. These schools are strongly community based and emphasize traditional values of family, community and faith. Children are taught the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive within the community and to successfully interact with general society as needed for business purposes. This method of education serves to socialize the child into the society in which it is hoped they will remain for the rest of their lives; while simultaneously protecting them from being socialized into mainstream American culture. This school system serves the unique needs of the culture in which it exists.

As a social institution, educational systems are an almost indispensable component in the process of transmitting culture across generations (Kendall, 2007, p. 510). In primitive cultures, there may be no need for a formal system of education. Children do all their learning at home, from the adults in the community. But in any more sophisticated culture, there is a need for a formal system to pass on the knowledge, skills and attitudes—the paradigm—that the culture is built on. Every culture will have its own unique paradigm that, consciously or unconsciously, is taught to the next generation in order to carry on the essence of the culture. Sociologist James Henslin says that schools and educational systems are formal methods of transmitting a cultural group’s knowledge, values and skills (2010). The exact knowledge, values and skills that are transmitted varies widely depending on the values of a cultural group. Within each culture, the norms and values will change with time, and the structure and content of what is taught will also change. My own background, from a unique subculture within the U.S. culture, has made me aware of how the values of a culture can influence its educational systems.

I grew up in a traditional Mennonite family; seven children, two parents, a dairy farm with two-hundred plus acres to roam in, a family dog and assorted cats. Being the oldest child in the family, I was the first to learn what school was all about. I attended the usual two-day kindergarten the year before first grade, and when the big day arrived, off I went to first grade. For that first year of school I rode the public school-bus in to the public school in town, where the Mennonite students transferred to another bus which took us to Hillcrest Mennonite School. In the second and third years, my parents arranged for their scholars to ride with neighbors rather than on the public bus. In the summer between third and fourth grade, a new schoolhouse was built on the corner of my father’s farm. After that, I walked to school with my siblings.

The arrangements made for my education did not seem unusual to me. I never questioned my parents’ decision not to send their children on the public bus, much less the decision to send their children to a parochial school rather than to a public school. Nor did I rebel at my parents’ choice to end my formal education at the eighth grade. Not until several years after I had graduated from that one-room school did I begin to seriously ponder the reasoning behind those decisions. As I talked to my parents and read the books and pamphlets that I could find, I realized that this is not just a whim of the Amish and Mennonite people; this is a principle so dear that some parents had even faced jail time rather than send their children to a public school or have them in school for more than eight years. However, my research at the time was not very thorough, and I got the impression that the main reason for building our own schools was to prevent our children from being taught the macro-evolution theory of origins.

It was not until I made the decision– highly unusual in our culture– to pursue a college degree; that I came to appreciate some of the more complex value conflicts that inspired the creation of the Amish and Mennonite parochial school system. As an Old Order Mennonite in a college setting, I often struggle to know where I belong. My childhood in a mono-cultural school setting had given me a strong sense of belonging in the community. Becoming a college student gave me a true culture shock. I was unaccustomed to the attitudes and assumptions prevailing in higher education. For example, it is assumed that all students pursue education for the sake of earning a higher salary; and is usually taken for granted that students will cheat on exams and collaborate unfairly on take-home assignments. I was also unprepared for the unthinking prejudice against one-room schools, so that many classmates and some professors expressed surprise that a graduate of a one-room country school could be capable of handling college-level courses. This experience piqued my interest in the history of the parochial school system.

I soon came to realize that the history of the parochial schools is intertwined with the history of the public school system in America. The first public school in America dates from the late 1600’s (City, 2012). Of necessity, schools then served a small geographical area, limited to how far scholars could walk to school.  Because of this, there were schoolhouses every few miles. Local government of the schools was the rule rather than the exception in these rather isolated communities (Brandt, 2000, p.6). Until the middle of the twentieth century, almost all children in rural areas attended these local one-room schools; including the Amish and Mennonite children. The public schools as they existed at the time were still strongly community based, and the teachers and administrators were generally conservative in their values and attitudes. The Plain community had very little conflict with the system until the schools were removed from the context of the community.

The curriculum in the first American schools—both public and private—emphasized academic basics; reading, ‘riting and ’rithmetic, the well-known ‘three R’s’ of education. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most parents, educators and community leaders felt that the majority of their pupils would be well served with the ability to read well enough to understand the Bible and the almanac; the ability to write legible personal letters and legal contracts as necessary; and to use basic arithmetic in their personal and business finances. The elementary years were to teach the child how to learn, in order that learning might continue for the rest of the lifetime.

Prior to the 1800’s, there were few schools available to students from poorer families. The wealthy sent their children to exclusive private schools; middle class families who could afford to do so sent their children to the community-supported one-room schools to learn to read, write and figure. Very few schools offered free or low-cost education to the students from lower socio-economic classes. This approach to the school system worked well while the majority of students were destined to work as farmers, merchants, housewives and other occupations that required mostly manual skills.

All this changed with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of Child Labor laws in the 1800’s. The industrial revolution created a need for a literate workforce, while the Child Labor laws prevented thousands of children from working in the factories. Enrollment in the free public schools increased rapidly, and “[b]y 1890, public schools… enrolled about nine in ten pupils” (Bernard, Mondale, 2001, p. 4). With the increase in demand for education, came the demand for broader, more comprehensive curriculums. Not only were more academic subjects added, but the curriculum was also extended beyond the traditional academic focus to include education in health, physical ed., and vocational skills.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, curriculums offered in the public schools continued to change. Although the manifest, overt function continued to be the teaching of academic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic, the latent purpose changed somewhat. Where earlier educators saw education as a means of ‘Americanizing’ all their students into a collectivist, patriotic national standard (Henslin, 2010, p 499; Postman, 1996, p. 18), in the early twentieth century educators began putting more emphasis on the individual and on critical thinking and skepticism. This conflicted with the traditional high value placed on family, community and faith in the Amish and Mennonite communities.

School districts were vigorously consolidated, with students being bussed to central locations. In the early 1900’s, there were 150,000 school districts; “after [WW II], state agencies and national groups… took up the cause of school district consolidation in earnest.” In large part due to those efforts, by the year 2000, the number of school districts had dropped from 150,000 to 15,000 (Brandt, 2000, pp.6, 13). As the consolidation trend continued to take students out of their rural neighborhoods and into the nearby towns, many parents within the Amish and Mennonite communities became concerned that their children were being socialized away from the traditional community based lifestyle, and being assimilated into the individualistic American culture. According to John A. Hostetler, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Templeton University, if the purpose of an education is to teach social skills, then having children educated in the mainstream school system means having them socialized into the mainstream American culture. For the Amish and Mennonite communities, this means that the children will be lost as future members of the adult society; and there is a strong fear that they will be lost for all eternity as well (1971).

In response to this threat, Amish and Mennonite communities bought unused one-room schoolhouses that the townships had abandoned in favor of the larger consolidated schools, or built their own schools.  The stated purpose of this self-segregation is the transmission of cultural values and attitudes; of separation from the world, and a life of practical Christianity within the community. In interviews with the author of this paper, both teachers and parents in Amish and Mennonite schools emphasized that the purpose of sending children to school is to prepare them for life within the community, and thus for a life of practical Christianity on earth in preparation for eternity. In the words of an Amish school-teacher, “The goal of the Amish schools is to prepare children for usefulness by preparing them for eternity” (Fisher, Stahl, 1986, p.4).Chief Justice Warren Burger, delivering the court’s opinion in Wisconsin v. Yoder, (which finally granted the  Amish a religious exemption from the law requiring children to attend school until age sixteen,) stated that “[the Amish] object to the high school and higher education generally because the values it teaches are in marked variance with Amish values and the Amish way of life (1972).”

What those values and the way of life look like in practice are demonstrated by the school system that has been developed by the Amish and Mennonite parents. It is in marked contrast to the public school system. Hostetler observed in 1971, “the schools are small, with limited equipment…and the schools [are] completely financed and administered by the local… community” (p.105). In the experience of a teacher at one of the first of these schools, textbooks were often the outdated castoffs from the public schools (interview with the author, 2012). Not much has changed in the years since then. The organization is perhaps a little more sophisticated, with an informal network of school boards reaching across much of North America, but the principles are still the same. Curricula also have evolved; having been revised and updated to remove outdated information and better reflect the values of the community. For example, the McGuffey readers were used for many years, but have been replaced due to objections about the patriotism that they teach. Most schools now use the Pathway series, which were compiled and edited by an Amish publishing house, and teach nonresistance and respect for the government’s authority instead of patriotism. A Beka math textbooks were discarded because many word problems presented elaborate living quarters, multi-media entertainment, and corporate finance as being part of a normal lifestyle. They have been replaced with texts from various other publishers, all of which present conservative Christian lifestyles in the word problems. Hostetler stated that “Ideally the curriculum of the Amish elementary school helps the child to live his Christianity and thus eventually to reach not historical or earthly acclaim, but eternal rewards” (1971, p.35).

In many ways the curricula and teaching methods of the Amish and Mennonite schools are like the schools of the colonial times. The parochial system emphasizes the ‘three R’s’ of education: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Since the purpose of an education is often seen as turning out farmers, mechanics and housewives who know enough not to be taken in by a cleverly written contract, teachers tend to emphasize practical application; teaching students to read, write and figure well enough to survive in the business world. The eight years of formal education are seen as a starting point for a lifetime of independent, practical learning; no need for a high school or college to provide the knowledge. However, this does not mean that these pupils are receiving a sub-standard education. In fact, standardized testing of Amish and Mennonite students has consistently shown them to score above the national average in most subjects. In a study performed by John Hostetler and Gertrude Huntingdon, “Amish pupils scored significantly higher in spelling, word usage, and arithmetic then the pupils in [their] sample of rural public schools…. In those aspects of learning stressed by the Amish culture, the Amish pupils outperformed pupils in the control groups” (1971, p.96).

Part of the reason for this superior performance may be due to the fact that parochial schools in the Plain communities are strongly community based, with most of the adults within the community involved in the school system; as board members, parents, or teachers, or simply by offering support for those more directly involved. Community members are free to visit the schools at any time without a specific invitation. Parents usually make a point of visiting the school at least every six weeks, and it is a popular pastime for teenage girls to make the rounds of all the schools in an area, spending extra time in the schoolhouses where close friends are teaching. Within the schoolroom, there is also a strong emphasis on cooperation and community living. A typical schoolroom will have fifteen to thirty pupils divided among eight grades, all in one room. With one or two teachers for all grades, students are expected to cooperate and apply themselves to their lessons without constant stimulation and attention from a teacher. Indeed, cooperation is necessary to avoid chaos, and a pupil who repeatedly disrupts the classroom will face discipline from the teacher, to be supported, and if necessary, reinforced, by the parents. Schools are an important part of life in the community and pupils are expected to apply themselves to their learning.

Parochial schools also focus on a rather limited number of subjects, with the result that students will thoroughly master the content that they are taught, rather than having a more superficial knowledge of a broader area. The areas in which Hostetler (1971) found that Amish pupils outperformed the control groups were spelling, word usage and arithmetic; all academic basics in which the Amish pupils would have been drilled until they attained mastery. Thus the apparent disadvantage of limited subjects is compensated by a thorough mastery of the basics. Those basics are, after all, all that is really needed to become a successful farmer, entrepreneur, housewife or gardener.

Meanwhile the public schools have not been static. The curriculum and teaching methods today are ever changing, meeting the fluctuating standards of the nation. With the current political interest in education, it is expected that increased, widespread changes will be seen.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living” (1947). Both of these school systems try to build character– “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking a person.”(Roach, 2012).The difference lies in which mental and ethical traits are held to have the most value. Where the Plain schools emphasize interdependence, community and tradition by having their schools functioning as an integral part of the community life; the public schools emphasize independence, individuality and innovation, both by providing students many opportunities to express their opinion, and also by separating education from the home and the family. No matter what the values that are held by a culture; its school system will reflect those values.

Educational systems are shaped by the values and norms of the cultures they serve; and in turn the culture is shaped by the educational system. Thus, no matter how imperfectly, the system mirrors the culture and is the vehicle for the continuation of the culture. No one system is nearer perfection than another except in how well they serve their cultures. Because of the near mono-culture that the Amish and Mennonite schools serve, they have the easier task. Public schools, charged as they are with serving multiple cultures, face a unique challenge. Each system reflects and serves the culture from which it comes; each is unique, flawed, ever changing, but still faithful to the values of the people who shape and are shaped by it.


Bernard, S. C., Mondale, S. (2012). School: the story of American public education. Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts

Brandt, R. S. (2000) Education in a New Era. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, Virginia

Burger, W.E. (1972) Wisconsin v. Yoder, The Opinion of the Court. Retrieved from Wikisource.

City of Boston (2012)  First Public School Site and Ben Franklin Statue. Retrieved from the City of Boston webpage.

Fisher, S.E., Stahl, R.K. (1986). The Amish School. Good Books; Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

Kendall, D. (2007). Sociology in Our Times, 6th Ed. Baylor University; Thomson Wadworth.

King, M.L., Jr. (1947) The Purpose of Education. Posted on the Purpose of Education blog.

Henslin, J. M. (2010) Sociology: A Down- to- Earth Approach, 10th ed. Pearson Higher Education: Boston, Massachusetts.

Hostetler, J. A.; Huntington, G. E. (1971) Children in Amish Society; Socialization and Community Education. Holt, Rinehart and Winton, Inc.

Postman, N. (1996). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, New York

Roach, L. (2012) What Is Character? Message posted to Character Training blog:


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