Schools in the Amana Colonies
One hundred years ago the schools in the Amana colonies were much like other schools in Iowa at the time. But as other schools changed to keep up with new ideas and modern educational practices, the schools of the Amana colonies didn’t.
The Same in Some Ways
Amana schools were much like other rural, one-room schools in Iowa 100 years ago. Children studied reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, geography and history. Classes recited their lessons in unison for the teacher to hear. They took 7th and 8th grade county examinations like all other students in Iowa at the time. Boys wore sturdy overalls and straw hats and girls wore long dresses and bonnets. They played games, chanted rhymes and sang songs before filing inside.
Six Days a Week
But this is where the similarities end. Amana children attended school six days a week with no summer vacation. Amana school days started early in the morning and ended late in the day. Long school days provided necessary care and supervision for children whose parents, grandparents, and grown brothers and sisters were busy at their jobs.
Children entered Amana schools at age five, speaking only German. Students learned English as a second language and used English textbooks for many courses. Use of English in daily conversation was discouraged. It was considered "worldly."
The people of the Amana colonies were called Inspirationists. The religious faith and practice of the Inspirationists required them to remain separated, sheltering the people from outside temptations. The rest of the world had little influence on early Amana since the German-speaking people couldn't talk freely with English-speaking "outsiders."
School days were broken into three parts: academic and religious instruction, playtime, and manual skill training. Even the youngest children learned skills they could use for the benefit of the community.
In the winter boys and girls learned to knit. Young children knit stockings and mittens for themselves and their families. Boys trained in shops and factories to learn a trade. In the summer children tended gardens and grape arbors in the school yards, taking turns planting, hoeing, watering and cutting. As in much of rural Iowa, regular lessons were often set aside during harvest time so children could help with the extra work.
Religious training in Amana schools included lessons from the Bible, a study of the history, traditions, beliefs and leaders of the Community of True Inspiration. They also studied the "66 rules of daily living" for children. These rules, for example, reminded children to get up as soon as they awakened (no snooze button!) and turn their thoughts immediately toward God. Manners were also emphasized. Children were not to be greedy over food. They were to cut their food into small pieces, hold silverware daintily, and not spill on the tablecloth. They were instructed to chew quietly and not slurp their soup. They were also supposed to eat without complaining and not throw food or bones under the table.
Eighth Grade Only
Few students attended school past the 8th grade. At age 14 children took their places as working members of the community. They were considered adults and expected to work in the communal way with no one being paid for his or her labor. In exchange for a full day's work in an assigned job, the society met all daily need including meals, housing, medical and dental care, and credit towards other necessities purchased in Amana shops.
Occasionally a young man was selected from the graduating class to attend high school outside Amana. He would then go on to college to become a doctor, dentist, pharmacist or teacher. The community paid his tuition and expenses with the understanding that he would return and serve in his village without pay just like all other members of the society.
Changes in School
Amana schools experienced many changes when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Hostility toward German people and businesses in Iowa often focused on the Amana villages. State investigators monitored Amana schools and curriculum throughout the war to make sure Amana was not on Germany’s side.
In 1918 Iowa’s governor, William L. Harding, declared English the official language of the state. This law, known as the Language Proclamation, banned the use of any language other than English in public places such as schools or churches and even on the telephone. Other languages could be spoken only at home.
The Language Proclamation was overturned at the end of World War I. A more widespread use of English had been forced on the Amanas, and that could not be reversed. German was still, however, the language for religious instruction.
Changes in the Amana communities which led to reorganization in 1932 also led to major changes in the Amana school system. Saturday school and the extensive religious instruction were stopped. Although kids still received instruction in German and religion in Sunday school, English was taught in the schools. All Amana teenagers were given the option of attending high school in one of the neighboring towns. Through the new Amana high school's activities, students and their families joined the world around them.
The Great Change
After 1932 many changes took place at the Amana colonies. In fact, the people of the colonies called the event “The Great Change.” The way the businesses were operated changed. The way people lived changed. And the schools changed along with everything else. A high school was built so the children could continue their educations. Today the schools located in the Amana colonies are no different than any other school in Iowa.
- Millie Freese, “School Days,” The Goldfinch 21, no. 3 (April 1992): 13-15.