Individual Rights and Wisconsin v. Yoder

In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that the Amish would be exempt from a state law requiring children to attend school until the age of 16. I learned of the case while reading the indispensable Schoolhouse Gate by Justin Driver.

The case raises difficult questions despite its 7-0 ruling. At the time, the Amish were compared to the Jeffersonian ideal of the land-working yeoman. The individualistic focus of schools destroys the potential for the creation of future yeomen. In schools, students have the potential to distinguish themselves from their peers and begin on a career path, which runs contrary to communitarian Amish beliefs.

Commentators at the time, and now, have grave concern for Amish youth. They have been compared to slaves and declawed cats. They cannot participate in mainstream society not because of lack of intellect, but because they have been bound to a sect that denies their preparation for participation.

I’m not hopping on a nostalgic bandwagon here that supports even one particular Amish practice (except for maybe the donuts). I imagine their culture is full of retrograde traditions, but so is mainstream culture in the USA. I’m on board with the criticism that the Amish youth were sacrificed for the good of their religious order. But there is a preservationist part of me that worries about the annihilation of a group of people who fall outside the mainstream. Call it an insistence that eggs are in a bunch of different baskets or multiculturalism or biodiversity, but I don’t want Amish culture to die off. And individualism is a poison pill for collectivist cultures.

The ways in which USA-style individualism has changed the world are glorified as an antidote to authoritarianism. We’re sold the origin story of individuals fighting taxation without representation from our earliest encounters with history. We won the Cold War, the story goes, because the Soviets loved them some Levi blue jeans. But the ethos of “I don’t want yours, I just want my half” destroys the planet. From owning your own home to owning your own lawn mower to individualizing your child’s education, hyper focus on individualism comes at the expense of obligations to the community and the common wealth of our environment. And communitarian and indigenous cultures around the world have suffered from the ascendance of US culture.

In his book, Justin Driver says that the Supreme Court ruled incorrectly in Wisconsin v. Yoder. I would agree that the decision flies in the face of the individual-rights focus of the constitution, a focus that Driver hails. But whatever the imperfect notions guiding the decision, I’ll take it for at least a chink in the individualist armor that allowed the continuation of a 300 year old tradition outside the mainstream to survive.

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