A few days ago, I had the privilege of spending the afternoon with a group of Hutterites, one of several closely related religious groups that also include the Amish and the Mennonites. Collectively called Anabaptists (not to be confused with Baptists), these people live communally and adhere to strict social and religious rules and regulations.
Hutterites establish extensive, modern farms that support their communities, which may consist of a dozen or more families. When a community—or “colony”—reaches a certain population (generally about 150 to 250), the leaders buy land elsewhere and establish a “daughter” colony. The community is divided, and about half the families migrate to the new location. The community I visited was a “daughter” colony forty years ago, when the original members immigrated to the United States from Canada.
Like nuns before the Catholic reform movement, Hutterite women wear special long dresses and hair coverings that distinguish them from others. Men wear black trousers with suspenders, and married men wear beards. Great care is taken to ensure that the day-to-day activities of the community are not much influenced by the outside world: televisions and radios are forbidden, and any access to the Internet is strictly limited to those who may need it to conduct business.
While Hutterites do have commerce with the outside world (including conducting tours of the compound, such as the one I was on), they are not of the world. Their first language is German, and older children and adults speak English with a pronounced accent. Children are educated within the compound and do not attend college. They learn the practical skills required for life within the colony and no others. For example, none learn to play musical instruments. (Although music is an important part of daily life, it consists of songs sung a cappella, usually in German.)
Asked if anyone had ever left the community, Theresa, our guide, said, “No. Why would anyone want to leave? We have everything we need here, and we take care of each other from cradle to grave.”
A closely related question is this: How could anyone leave? How could a young person who’s never been allowed—much less encouraged—to “think outside the box” ever leave the only world he or she has known since birth? How would anyone find the courage to leave behind all friends and family for a world that’s been depicted as evil and dangerous? Lacking many social skills and even the concept of “finding a job,” how could such a person get by in what the rest of us think of as everyday life?
I’m reminded of The Odyssey (which I’m sure Hutterite children don’t study in school). When Ulysses’ men arrived in the Land of the Lotus Eaters and experienced the euphoria the food there produced, they lost all desire to reenter the outside world. Ulysses had to capture them and tie them down in the ships to get them to leave that land of gentle captivity.
There are questions worth exploring here. If parents have the right to raise children however they please, what about the rights of the children? Should education involve preparing children for change, even if in the minds of the parents, change is not desirable? Should citizens be taught about the history and government of their country—even if their families encourage them not to participate in that government? Is ignorance by design of current events a type of captivity? Do people have a right to develop any or all of their talents—even those not valued by their family or community?
Thoughts and comments would be most welcome.