We know that the key to reaching herd immunity with the least amount of suffering is getting as many people as possible vaccinated, as quickly as possible. Still, we know that many people fall into the category of “vaccine hesitant”. These people are not necessarily against vaccinations in general, but feel some degree of wariness or concern about particular vaccinations. The best way to address this is with clear, compassionate, culturally appropriate explanations of how vaccines work and why they’re important.
(Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.)
The degree of vaccine hesitancy among the Amish has varied widely across each individual community (like most types of people). However, the particular context of this pandemic means that the Amish, who have large families (average 8-9 children) and a significant number of whom live in multi-generational homes and who frequently gather, are more at risk than ever. Layer those factors on top of most Amish adults’ extremely low levels of education — average 5th grade literacy and 4th/5th grade math, no science, and ESL with no science vocabulary in the Amish language — and you have the ingredients for an incredibly high at-risk situation.
There has been tons of misinformation out there about COVID-19, how to prevent it, and what is in the vaccines. It can be difficult for any person to parse out what is true and what is false in this circumstance, whether that information is traveling by word of mouth or . . .
. . . through technology. However, vulnerable populations with less education are more likely to believe and share misinformation. That is certainly true for the Amish, who are especially susceptible to conspiracy theories, such as the vaccine containing chips that make it the “mark of the beast”, perpetuated by the religious and political right. In a new study earlier this year, education level has become a greater factor than even race and ethnicity when it comes to people’s willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Because of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Amish parents have been allowed to legally deny their children any education past the 8th grade. However, it is not as if the education that Amish children do receive from the 1st through 8th grades is adequate. Most notably when it comes to the subject of this article, Amish children are not allowed to learn science and there are no words in the Amish language to explain scientific concepts, even basic terms. How a normal vaccine works is complicated and explaining an mRNA vaccine to someone with a 5th grade English reading level and no understanding of microbiology? That’s nearly impossible.
We know that even in 1972 (when Yoder was decided), when the gap between Amish parochial elementary education and public elementary education was not nearly as wide as it is now (50 years later), the study that John Hostetler, the expert witness on behalf of the Amish parents, cited as proof of Amish educational equivalence was thoroughly compromised. Hostetler himself conducted the study and deliberately distorted it to support his claim for the Yoder case. The quality of Amish education was so bad that even the best Amish schools could not close the adequacy or equivalency gap.
The Supreme Court of the United States based the Yoder ruling on a claim that the Amish were “other”; they were so different and secluded that what they did did not matter for the rest of the US. Amish children were the property of their parents and could only ever become practicing Amish adults. The fact that some people manage to leave or escape from the practicing Amish community — at immense cost, including hardline shunning and/or excommunication — and have to find safety, shelter, and support in non-Amish society never entered their calculations. COVID-19 has shown us that we are all interconnected and that the actions of one community affects everyone else. The Amish are not self-sufficient and separated from the modern world: they go to the grocery store, they sell things, they interact with the non-Amish, and they are 100% dependent on the outside world to survive. The systemic and continued educational neglect has made them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and has made it more difficult for all of us to survive and end this pandemic.
Right now, we should be doing everything we can to educate the Amish on how important the COVID-19 vaccines are, making it easier for them to get vaccinated, and combating misinformation everywhere. However, in the long term, we need to recognize the fact that COVID-19 has shown us that knowledge matters and everyone should receive an adequate education in order to use that knowledge to keep themselves safe. In a modern world, with modern problems, we need to make sure that every child has the right to an adequate education, no matter what.
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Keep scrolling for the video version of this post.
V.B., Summer Intern for the Amish Heritage Foundation
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“Education is the key to freedom.”— Torah Bontrager, Amish Educator, Writer, Author, Speaker
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