Old-World Education: German Language Influences Hutterite Schooling

Aksamit, Nichole. "Old-World Education: German Language Influences Hutterite Schooling." Forum, 18 November 1999, sec. A1 & A7.

The modest women of Spring Prairie Colony share a quiet moment in the early morning sun on a trailer behind a tractor headed for a cucumber field northwest of Hawley, Minnesota.

Spring Prairie Colony, Minn.

It's a Friday afternoon and, like students everywhere, those in Cornelius "Corny" Wipf's classroom are eager for the school week to end.

Ten children in grades 4 through 9 are paired at their desks, scratching their heads at the daily puzzle while Wipf works one-on-one with an older boy learning algebra at the front of the room.

"They're panicking," Wipf says with a grin. "They've got a problem of the day, it's due in five minutes, and they don't know how to do it."

The few who've figured it out quietly peruse library books like Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" while Wipf and the algebra student compare answers: "B to the third, n to the second, x to the third."

In the only other classroom in this Hutterite schoolhouse on the prairie northwest of Hawley, a dozen students in kindergarten through grade 3 are cleaning up their work spaces and finishing the day's projects.

While a paraprofessional supervises the other children, Hawley teacher Cheryl Gottenborg gathers the kindergartners and first-graders for a lesson about money. She passes around a dime and asks the children to compare its ridged edge to the smooth edge of a penny.

"Do you know why this one is rough?" she asks. "It's so that people who can't see can tell the difference between a dime and a penny. Does anyone know what we call a person who cannot see?"

"Blind," the students reply, pronouncing the word with a short "i" sound, as in German.

"That's close," Gottenborg says. "It's bl-eye-nd. Can you say that?" "Bl-eye-nd."

Three languages by age 6

Hutterite schools have some of the oldest language immersion programs around.

By the age of 6, Hutterite children speak three languages: English, high German and Huttrisch, an evolved version of a nearly extinct German dialect know as Tyrolean.

They grow up speaking Huttrisch and begin learning high German in simple religious songs and Bible stories from the German teacher in preschool, when they are as young as 2 and ½ years old. They learn English when they attend state-required kindergarten through ninth grade.

Teaching students who are just learning English can be a challenge, says Gottenborg, especially when you don't know their first language.

"I understand a little German," she says. "Sei stille' is probably the first phrase I learned. It means 'sit quietly.'"

Gottenborg says learning a new language can be difficult for students, too. But Hutterite kindergartners come to school all day ever day, as opposed to the half day required by the state. "And that certainly helps them learn quicker."

The German school

In addition to the regular 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day, Hutterites attend German school for one hour before and one hour after their English studies.

Here, under the guidance of the colony's elected German teacher, students from kindergarten to age 15 learn how to read and write high German with a curriculum based on the Bible and Hutterite history.

They also learn basic prayers and ceremonies of their religion.

On this particular Friday in the English school classroom that doubles as the German school, students are playing a German grammar game and finishing some German-English translations.

"First God created light," an 8-year-old boy writes.

The German teacher, Martin Waldner, walks the aisles, monitoring their work and speaking to them softly in German.

What the state requires

Hutterites at Spring Prairie have a somewhat skeptical view of state-required education. They consider some aspects of it - like sex education, politics and the theory of evolution - contradictory to Bible teachings. And they feel using television or Internet in the classroom is exposing students to "worldly" ideas.

"English school is state-controlled and required through age 16," says John Waldner Sr., the colony preacher. "So far, we've lent ourselves to state schools. But I don't know how long that'll continue."

For the same reasons - worldiness and contradiction to Bible teachings - Hutterites have not encouraged higher education.

Although Hutterites continue attending Sunday school until they request Baptism, they are done with German school at age 15, and with English school at age 16. age the age of 15, young Hutterites begin to assume adult responsibilities in the colony. They eat in the adult dining hall and apprentice under one or more of the adults.

Although some boys get their GEDs and go on to get specialized training in certain trades, only on Hutterite at Spring Prairie has a four-year college degree.

"It's harder for an educated man to humble himself in the colony," explains Waldner. "If you're educated as a lawyer and elected as a herdsman in the colony, you'll have to vent that education somehow. It's a heavy load to bear."

Waldner says Hutterites are not against the new findings in horticulture, mechanics or electronics, or any fields that have relevance to the Hutterian way of life.

But if a Hutterite is to get higher education, it happens only at the colony's bidding.

For example, Corny Wipf was elected by the men of this colony to teach their children in the public school.

Because the state requires teachers to be certified, he was sent to Moorhead State University to get his teaching degree and certification. He didn't go to college because he wanted to, but because it was the will of the colony.

In the future, Waldner says, Hutterites may have to attend school past the ninth grade to keep up with technology.

"If we don't learn it, we only become reliant on other to do it for us," he says. "And we can't afford to hire specialist for everything."

A paraprofessional helps Mathilda Waldner, right, finish an art project during English school at Spring Prairie Colony.
Hutterite teacher Martin Waldner carefully monitors students in the German School.

Cornelius Wipf, right, works with a student learning algebra.
Hawley teacher Cheryl Gottenborg, right, leads a lesson during English school at Spring Prairie Colony.

Parents and grandparents help ensure the children at Spring Prairie Colony carry on the traditions and the "true faith" of their Hutterite ancestors.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller