I grew up in the 1940s and 50s, a time that I consider to be the Golden Age of prosperity and promise, a time when the middle-class was growing larger and more prosperous and it seemed that things would only continue to get better. It was a time when a family could manage quite nicely, as mine did, on a single modest income. My dad was a “debit agent” for a big mutual insurance company, selling life insurance and collecting the premiums from policy holders within his territory, or “debit.” On his modest income he was able to provide us with a nice home, put both my sister and me through college, and allow my mother to remain at home to take care of us kids, keep house, and prepare our meals as middle-class wives typically did in those days.
The social revolution of the 1960s and 70s brought some massive cultural changes, including the rise of the environmental, civil rights, human potential, feminist, gay-rights, back-to-the-land, and peace movements, along with a relaxation of sexual mores, a shift to more casual modes of dress, the hippies, the flower children, experimentation with psycho-active substances, and experiments in communal and cooperative living.
The leveling of class distinctions and income distributions that characterized the post-World War II era continued up until about 1980. Around that time many of those earlier trends seemed to run out of energy, and reactionary forces threw many of them into reverse. Notable among the latter has been the massive reversal of economic fortunes of the middle and lower classes. Despite huge increases in productivity and increased material abundance, class and wealth differences again began to increase and have by now reached unprecedented proportions. For most families, the income from one job is no longer sufficient.
But my purpose here is not to recapitulate the history of that era, nor to critique it, but simply to introduce the reader to a drastically different way of living that has been thriving for decades, if not centuries right alongside the high-tech, consumerist, debt-ridden rat-race that most of us are caught up in, and to suggest that there may be something important to be learned from the Amish as we try to reinvent civilization amidst the present intensifying chaos.
Given my interest in social justice, economic equity, personal freedom, intentional communities, and the social phenomena of the 60s and 70s, it is not surprising that I would discover Donald Kraybill’s book, The Riddle of Amish Culture, which for me was an eye-opener that showed me a much different way in which people were able to thrive. That was sometime in the 1980s, the same time as my involvement with the School of Living which caused me to make frequent trips into Pennsylvania where School of Living headquarters were then located. Those trips took me through parts of the state where Amish farms and businesses were numerous.
Recently, as I was sorting through some of the many boxes containing my archives and personal records, I came across a photocopy of an article titled, Amish Economics by Gene Logsdon that appeared in the September-October 1986 issue of Community Service Newsletter. Rereading that article after so many years and in the present day context of social, economic and political upheaval, it struck me as being even more pertinent now as we struggle to reimagine how we ought to be living on this finite planet. I’ve scanned that article, converted it to a PDF file, and am making it available here for your edification.
In spite of what many consider to be their backward ways and their inclination to eschew much of modern technology, the Amish have managed to thrive both as a religious and social community as well as economically while many in the conventional world have struggled to survive. According to Wikipedia, “The Amish are among the fastest-growing populations in the world.” Between 1920 and 2019, the Amish population in the United States increased from about 5,000 to 350,000, and they have spread beyond Pennsylvania into many other states, notably Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York, and Michigan.
Now I am not advocating that we all live as the Amish do, but I think we might do well cultivate some of their attitudes about community and mutual support, and adopt some of their agricultural, land stewardship, and small business practices. Amish communities also enjoy certain freedoms from government policies and dictates because of their religious beliefs and practices.
If you’d like to dig deeper into what the Amish might teach the rest of us, you can learn a lot from the links in this article and from the Amish Times.
Your comments on this article would be welcomed.
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