It’s hard to understand Canada’s Old Colony Mennonites without first understanding their views on education.
In 1922 about 8,000 Old Colony Mennonites left Canada for Mexico and Paraguay because of education mandates.
“The idea that the state can dictate what a child learns remains strange to them,” said Royden Loewen, chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba. “The idea that you give up your children to government education seems wrong to them.”
About 50,000 descendants of the 5,000 or so who migrated to Mexico have returned to Canada and are still navigating laws surrounding public schooling. Very little research exists on their educational beliefs and practices.
This is something Oxford University doctoral student Robyn Sneath hopes to remedy through three years studying Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba and Mexico.
Sneath’s dissertation proposal was awarded a Trudeau scholarship, one of Canada’s most prestigious doctoral awards. This month she received an additional grant from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation.
“I hope that it will not only be of interest to Mennonites but also to non-Mennonites as an example of a minority group struggling to preserve its culture through the education of its children,” she said.
Though Sneath was raised Pentecostal, her grandfather was among a group of Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba who left Canada for Mexico after compulsory school attendance was enacted during World War I.
“This really escalated post-World War I — imagine a pacifist, isolationist, German-speaking group,” she said. The government required schools to fly the union jack flag, to include English instruction, to have certified teachers, and more.
Some Mennonites complied. Others were willing to pay fines or be jailed to avoid the mandate. Ultimately 7,735 Low-German Mennonites left Canada over the issue between 1922 and 1930, settling in Mexico and Paraguay.
Today other options exist for those who have returned to Canada such as homeschooling or private colony schools.
“There are certainly elements in the school system that don’t jibe with traditional Old Colony belief systems,” Sneath said.
These include sex education, evolution, physical education, musical instruments and advanced technology.
But Sneath said so little information is available, it’s impossible to know what kind of education they get or would prefer. Her research will uncover more.
She is interviewing Old Colony Mennonites both in Manitoba and in Mexico’s Manitoba Colony. Located near Cuauhtemoc in the northern state of Chihuahua, it was the first colony established by Mennonites who left Canada.
“I try to get a sense of their ideas about schooling — how much is a good idea, why students go to school, what sorts of things are worthwhile to learn about, how well their schooling prepared them for adult life,” she said.
Her tentative thesis: Tensions have been caused by fundamentally different understandings of the purposes of education.
“For these Mennonites, schooling has served as the primary locus through which their language, faith and worldview are transmitted,” she said. “This has conflicted directly with prevailing concepts of schooling as a vehicle promoting autonomy and social mobility.”
Loewen said non-Mennonites in Canada tend to look down on Old Colony education practices.
This is ironic, he said, “because the very premise of [Old Colony] education is similar to our own,” he said. “We want our children to be able to follow our way of life.”
He said Old Colonists argue that their education sufficiently prepares children to follow the community’s simple life of farming, faith and perhaps a craft.
“The critics have a valid point,” Loewen said. “The Old Colony educational system does not prepare a child for life in the middle class or wider world. But, the point here is, that is not what the Old Colony desire or believe is morally right.”
In Mexico, Old Colony school sometimes lasts only six or seven years. That is long enough to prepare them “to take their place in the community — as members of the church and as farmers and homemakers,” Sneath said.
In addition to personal interviews, she plans to observe in the colony schools.
Sneath finds it easier to interview Mennonites after explaining her ties to the community. So when she connected via email with a community leader in the Manitoba Colony, she mentioned her grandfather Jake Dyck.
To her delight, the man responded that her great-grandfather, Isaac Dyck, had been his schoolteacher.
“He also informed me that I still have many relatives in Mexico, to whom he would happily introduce me should I find myself in the colonies there,” she said.
She’s looking forward to connecting to this newfound family when she researches in the Manitoba Colony in the spring.
A faith challenge
Sneath understands well the tensions between faith and education. Growing up in Winnipeg, she was the first in her family to study beyond high school — and hasn’t ever really stopped studying.
“There were some serious inconsistencies between what I was taught at home and church compared with what I was studying,” she said. “Sometimes I would come home from school and break down in tears, frustrated by the constant challenge to my faith.”
But she thinks in some ways that upbringing made her a better student.
“Because, unlike most of my peers, I was starting with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion,’ ” she said. “I was primed to disbelieve much of what I was being taught.”
Now she holds two bachelor’s degrees — the first in history and German and the second in education. And she earned a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School.
It wasn’t until taking Mennonite Studies courses from Loewen that she learned much about Mennonites.
“I didn’t really even think of myself as Mennonite, because I wasn’t raised in a Mennonite church,” said Sneath, who thinks of herself as “one-quarter Mennonite” because of her grandfather. “Since then, I have come to embrace my ‘Mennoniteness.’ ”