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Host: Scott LaMar

Smart Talk: Amish expert Don Kraybill

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Mar 27, 2015 12:09 PM
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What to look for on Smart Talk Monday, March 30, 2015:

The popular motion picture Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, resulted in an uptick in interest in the Amish in 1985.

The execution style shooting of 10 Amish girls, including five who died, in a Nickel Mines, Lancaster County school house in 2006.

Is there a real Amish Mafia like the network TV shows portray?

Besides the focus on the Amish, the one constant in all three examples and many others is Dr. Donald Kraybill, Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

Kraybill is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the Amish.  As such he the first person the media seeks when the Amish are in the news.  But that's just a small part of his career.  Kraybill continues to learn, teach, and write about the Amish.

Don Kraybill is retiring this spring.

He'll appear on Monday's Smart Talk to discuss his career and answer questions about the Amish.

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Dr. Don Kraybill

To read about the PBS program that Dr. Kraybill mentioned on the show, visit:

To read about the book Amish Grace, mentioned on the show, visit:

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  • Dean Evans img 2015-03-30 06:49

    If marijuana and/or hemp becomes legal to grow in Pennsylvania, would the Amish grow these crops?

    • Don Kraybill img 2015-03-30 12:36

      Dean, I doubt if the Amish would raise those crops if they become legal. They are pretty much oriented and focused on raising alfalfa and corn and in some areas of Lancaster County also tobacco.

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2015-03-30 08:30

    Marty writes:

    I hope that Dr. Craybill will continue to appear on your show after he retires…

  • Christine Achenbach img 2015-03-30 08:37

    Thanks for your representation of the college on Smart Talk today! I have the honor of working for the college in a different department from Dr. Kraybill and am also an alum. As a fellow citizen of south central PA, I am interested in knowing what Dr. Kraybill's perspective is on how he anticipates the Amish may respond to the proposed pipeline. Who will be their voice if it will take federal action to protest or stop the pipeline if it threatens Amish farmland?

  • Lisa img 2015-03-30 08:39

    Last year Lancaster Newspapers ran an article about a local Amish group obtaining the luggage of Jonathan "Yoni" Fisher, the Amishman who traveled the world. Why are the Amish so obsessed with someone who didn't follow the norms of his society, in essence abandoning his wife and children for a year and a half to engage in travel simply for self-indulgence?

    • Don Kraybill img 2015-03-30 12:38

      that is a very interesting question? Fisher was an extreme outlier in the Amish landscape. I think it happened far enough in the past that Amish historians are just curious about how did he manage to be such a self taught world historian that he could navigate a worldwide trip. I really don't have the answer to your question, I think it's just old-fashioned Amish curiosity!

  • Radio Smart Talk img 2015-03-30 08:55

    Marty asks:

    What are some of the more prominent PA Amish communities?

    • Don Kraybill img 2015-03-30 12:41

      some of the prominent Pennsylvania Amish communities include "Big Valley," near State College, New Wilmington Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh, Indiana County Pennsylvania, and the number of counties directly east of Penn State where Amish from Lancaster have settled. About half of the Amish population in Pennsylvania is in the Lancaster settlement. The other half is scattered in fifty-three different settlements in other parts of Pennsylvania. Don

  • Elam Zook img 2015-03-30 20:38

    Why does public radio give Dr. Kraybill carte blanche to define the narrative on the Amish? A couple month ago I was listening to an NPR interview of Dr. Kraybill. After the interview with Dr. Kraybill was over, the following program was about ISIS. The NPR host was questioning and challenging the person they were interviewing. The difference between the two programs couldn't have been more stark. Dr. Kraybill's interview was like the host and guest were politely sipping tea together while the program on ISIS was like the rumble in the jungle between Ali and Foreman.
    How about living up to your reputation as a reputable news source? When the subject matters, like ISIS, then some critical thought is employed, but when the subject is the Amish, it is propaganda and platitudes as far as the eye can see.

  • Elam Zook img 2015-03-30 21:26

    On the subject of rumspringa, Dr. Kraybill says that most Amish youth are not acting out or leaving their community. That is correct, but if they aren't given time to sow their wild oats, how does that effect the idea that Amish youth have a choice about joining the church. NPR routinely portrays Rumspringa as a time when youth get to decide. So which is it, do they have a choice or not. There are multiple, publicly available, references about what the Amish say about this subject, and their position is that rumspringa is unequivocally, not about "experiencing the world." In other words, it is not about choice, but NPR really doesn't care enough to be bothered with the details.
    The reality is that Amish leaders have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that church membership is about adult choice, a reasoned decision, but they do everything in their power to destroy personal agency when it comes to church membership. The Amish church, like pretty much every institution known to mankind, is failing to live up to its founding principles. They're in good company in their failure, it happens to the best. The problem is, why is a privileged, and revered news source enabling such basic, run of the mill corruption, that empoverishes those affected by it?
    Kraybill, the NPR host, their listeners have the priveliged of living in a free and open society. They all get to benefit from critical thinking, but God forbid that any of the wealth from thousands of years of developed thought should be shared with their Amish friends and neighbors, not withstanding the vows of how much they respect the Amish!

  • Elam Zook img 2015-03-30 21:49

    The idea that rumspringa is about choice, even for those few Amish kids that "act out" or whatever you want to call it, is fundamentally flawed. No Amish kid is going to be in a better position to make a more legitimate choice to join the church, just because they have experienced a couple hangovers. The opposite is true, actually. Since getting drunk or experiencing the world in the very limited form that they do, is generally alienating, it leaves them with an even more limited perspective from which to "choose."

  • Elam Zook img 2015-03-30 22:16

    It gets even more sinister and depressing. Amish church membership is about one thing and one thing only, acquiescence to authority. There is no choice, no bargaining, not even engagement. Submission is the only recognized currency. This isn't unusual, coming from an institution that takes their inspiration from fifteenth century mores. The scandal here is that outsiders who aren't subject to the experience are deliberately choosing to put lipstick on a pig. Someday, I hope there will be a reckoning on that front.

  • Elam Zook img 2015-03-31 06:55

    How about it NPR, why don't you fess up and apologize for being collaborators in creating a false and destructive narrative of my people? How many times have you or your guests propagated the idea that rumspringa is about choice? How many times have you given Dr. Kraybill a platform to spout his propaganda without any recognition at all that his word shouldn't be taken as THE authority on the Amish narrative?
    Whose story do you think this is? It certainly isn't yours or Dr Kraybill's, but you act as if you have a monopoly on it. You are a disgrace to both of your professions!

  • bergfuhrer img 2015-03-31 11:43

    1. Amish Exploitation:
    Any discussion about the exploitation of the Amish must begin with the millions of dollars that are extorted from Amish property owners every year to finance a public education scheme that they neither approve of nor benefit from.

    2. Donald Kraybill:
    Absent the dubious assumption that Mr. Kraybill has donated every cent he ever received from consulting, writing, and lecturing about the Amish sects back to those fellowships, he is every bit as much a parasite as anyone who has profited from “Witness” or “Amish Mafia”.

  • Elam Zook img 2015-04-03 05:08

    Maybe the way to approach this is to look at whether WITF gets public funding. Since Dr. Kraybill's work functions as the public relations-propaganda arm of the Amish church and WITF collaborates in presenting his work, that seems like a clear cut case of the government promoting religion. Maybe a lawsuit would get their attention!

  • Elam Zook img 2015-04-07 06:12

    This is how hegemony works. Kraybill won't participate in discussing actual Amish issues. He'll prattle and preen incessantly about inane aspects of Amish life, but on the meat and potato issues, he is quite as a mouse. Even when a person like myself, someone who's life is profoundly affected by Amish life, wants to engage with the issues of my life and my people, Kraybill marginalizes and dismisses what I bring to the conversation. Somehow I'm not deemed worthy of engaging in my own story.
    As a practicing, compliant, Amish person, this is how the Amish leadership treated me. Amish adherents are not allowed to participate or engage in the details of their lives. The function of a compliant member is to do what is expected of them and not ask questions. Conformity and submissiveness are the highest virtues. Anything that deviates from that is heresy. I paid an enormous price in surrendering my member in good standing with the Amish church. I did it because I wanted to engage in the details of my life. But even though I supposedly "joined" one of the most enlightened and intellectually developed societies the world has ever known, the most revered expert of my people, who lives in this new world, behaves exactly the way the authorities behaved where I came from.

  • Elam Zook img 2015-04-07 06:31

    How about it, Don. Why won't you come out from behind that fence you've created around this subject and play with me? You, a college professor, have benefitted enormously from living in a world that values the free exchange of ideas. But your work serves to entrap and impoverish me and my people. Your friends all tell me how humble and charitable you are. How about spreading the love around a little bit, eh?

  • Elam Zook img 2015-04-07 06:52

    We could start with a question I've already asked you at a talk you gave on the beard cutting incident. I asked you how you reconcile the forgiveness narrative from Nickel Mines with the fact that Amish people wrote the judge hearing the beard cutting case, asking him to give Mullet a life sentence.
    Care to give that one another go? Now remember, I care about these people, so I want some actual thought to go into this. Don't patronize me with some weak drivel that you wouldn't use toward an issue of importance in your own life.