Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Illusions of Individual Liberty

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.


Anonymous said...

I saw a documentary on an Amish custom called rumspringa (running around). I found the following explanation on the Internet: "When an Amish teenager turns 16, he is viewed as an adult and encouraged to explore the English world (which the Amish define as anything not Amish) free of parental restrictions. Rumspringa, or "running around", typically lasts anywhere from a few months to several years and, at the end, a young person is expected to decide whether to be baptized into the Amish church. In order to join they have to give up everything they have acquired during rumspringa- the jeans, cars, cell phones, video games and music. To be Amish is to sacrifice. By renouncing the English world, Amish teenagers prove that they are committed to the faith."

I'don't recall how the transition to rumspringa is accomplished. It would, no doubt, be a huge culture shock. Perhaps they have half-way houses? At any rate, this would give a child exposure to the "English" world. Some choose to stay there; some live pretty wild lives during their time on what is called the "devil's playground."

It would appear that the Amish are willing to take a gamble that the Hutterites do not.

Sue said...

I met a woman at a dinner party a few weeks ago. She is a brilliant scientist and our dinner-table conversation was enlivened by her sharing of some of her projects. Her other topic of conversation was her frustration with her teenaged daughter, whom she was about to send away to a strict boarding school to "whip her into shape." Was the daughter on drugs? Failing in school? Running around with an undesirable crowd? No. The girl's "crime" was wanting to be a normal teenager rather than studying all the time. Not of her mother's scientific bent, she saw no attraction in spending all her time studying when she could be painting (she's a talented artist), going to movies and dances, and even reading for pleasure.

A friend of mine during my "growing-up years" had the dubious fortune of being born into a musical family. I say dubious because that wasn't where here talents or interests lay, but she was forced into participating in the family chamber music ensemble, school orchestra, and even summer music camps. To see this athletic-type girl suffer through hours of rehearsals was a sobering experience for me even as a kid. "Why don't you just tell your parents you don't want to be a musician?" I once asked her. "I can't," she replied. "They wouldn't love me anymore." Fortunately, she was able to find a good counselor when she went away to college; changed her major from music to a field that was more her style and went on to have a successful life and career.

The "brilliant scientist" by the way has an ex-husband who is as unsatisfactory as the daughter; she apparently married him (from what I could gather) "for the experience" and divorced when she got tired of being pinned down. Never mind the child. Contrast this with the family-centric culture of the Hutterites.

What does this have to do with Citizen Jane's posting on the Hutterites? Well, simply that there's no one good way to raise children. Every parent has to do what he/she thinks is best -- for the family, for the child, and for society as a whole. Is it more abusive to force a child into a highly technical or specialized artistic career than to teach them the things they need to survive in and be productive members of a simpler society?

The Hutterites obviously don't reject all modernity; they utilize the improvements that make sense to them -- electricity, vehicles, even (according to Jane) the Internet. Where they differ from the rest of society is that they tend to evaluate such things carefully, choosing what they will accept according to their benefits and how to utilize them according to their need. Is this such a bad thing? Should I be criticized for preferring knitting, weaving, and cooking to watching TV or playing video games.? The people who enjoy my handknit sweaters or homemade jam certainly value those lifestyle choices, even if they choose to spend their time writing blogs or figuring out their Iphones. If I prefer to read a real book instead of Kindle, where's the problem in my not accepting the latest technology. As long as what I'm doing is legal, moral, and generally productive, it's my business, the same as anyone else's. Let's not use "how people raise their children" as a criterion for judging lifestyles. The two may be related, but they're not the same. There are good and bad parents in all socioeconomic levels.

In our contemporary headlong rush to have the newest gadgets and technology, maybe we should step back and ask what we can learn from simpler cultures.

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