Educated: A Memoir (2018)

A Memoir

Tara Westover ( link)

I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing. —JOHN DEWEY

. . .

As I walked home carrying the heavy manuscript, I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, “Who writes history?” on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do. [emphasis original]


The book isn’t necessary for some readers, and might be overkill for those of us who’ve had our own conservative backgrounds or educational development in adulthood, slow or fast. However, it’s honest, especially in its inevitable inaccuracies, and it’s perfect. Hopefully those who need the punch in the face as to what an education really is will have the patience, self-discipline, and self-honesty to not only finish the book, but also to reflect on its lessons.

Note: Excellent practice started with Tidying Up and Educated: read (or at least skim) the 1- and 2-star critical reviews. Many reviews for this book were 1) Mormons who “knew the Westover family” (though they obviously didn’t know the family!) either defending their versions of events or accusing Tara of lying, and/or b) readers who couldn’t believe what they read and admittedly stopped reading partway through. But based on the small total number of 1- and 2-star reviews I read, I’m hopeful.


Educated contains lots of lovely prose, especially about the mountain near their house:

All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what to do if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I’d know when it was time to come home.


And about The Country vs. The City (or at least a typical modern experience in the middle quote) :

There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. [Her father] Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.

. . .

The test began. I’d never sat at a desk for four hours in a room full of people. The noise was unbelievable, yet I seemed to be the only person who heard it, who couldn’t divert her attention from the rustle of turning pages and the scratch of pencils on paper.

. . .

I lived alone in the quiet apartment for three days. Except it wasn’t quiet. Nowhere was quiet. I’d never spent more than a few hours in a city and found it impossible to defend myself from the strange noises that constantly invaded. The chirrup of crosswalk signals, the shrieking of sirens, the hissing of air brakes, even the hushed chatter of people strolling on the sidewalk—I heard every sound individually. My ears, accustomed to the silence of the peak, felt battered by them.


The book is a rallying cry for a true education, decreasingly seen in the U.S. Still, I think Westover would agree that home-schooling can be a decent model of education, even at times as exemplary as hers was horrific, and formal education in high school or college is not strictly necessary. More important to one’s education is sparking the internal “fire” to learn in the individual, which is more easily accomplished after Maslow’s needs are met, like finances:

I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.

. . .

I had a thousand dollars in my bank account. It felt strange just to think that, let alone say it. A thousand dollars. Extra. That I did not immediately need. It took weeks for me to come to terms with this fact, but as I did, I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.

. . .

I couldn’t have explained why I dropped advanced music theory in favor of geography and comparative politics, or gave up sight-singing to take History of the Jews. But when I’d seen those courses in the catalog, and read their titles aloud, I had felt something infinite, and I wanted a taste of that infinity.


On boxing yourself into predetermined roles:

He’d [her professor] seemed to say, “First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.”

. . .

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.


Tara says of her older sister, and later of her older brother: “Somehow, it had never occurred to me that my sister might have lived my life before I did.” Indeed. More broadly, this is the true education that must come as an adult from others; without it, we are doomed to learn only directly from our experiences. If we learn from the experiences of others, we grow far more in a single lifetime.


Note her physical reactions (nightmares, headaches, dental problems, severe skin/allergic reactions) to her parent’s near-disownment when she went to Idaho and tried to confront them all. (Before they flew to her college in England to confront her.) Fascinating (and terrible); and likely some kind of psychic-resonance-familial-connection going on to cause these kind of pain/negative reactions in Tara’s self.


Something that might not be obvious to many American readers – even if she mentioned it in the book – is the true charisma of “prophetic” (if often mentally ill or schizophrenic) individuals like her father. That charisma is powerful; and since we so seldom encounter such individuals in our daily lives, it is too easy to negatively judge those (like in this book) who follow such leadership. We are all more sheepish than we want to accept.


Random quotes from her family:

“What’s college?” I said.

“College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,” Dad said.

. . .

My hands might be dirty,” Dad had said, winking at me and displaying his blackened fingernails. “But it’s honest dirt.”

. . .

“These genius socialists,” Dad said. “They’d drown staring up at the rain if you didn’t build a roof over them.” I laughed so hard at that my stomach ached.

. . .

Shawn called it a death machine and said Dad had lost what little sense he’d ever had. “Are you trying to kill someone?” he said. “Because I got a gun in my truck that will make a lot less mess.”

. . .

“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ll adjust the chakra on Audrey and wing it to you.”

“You’ll what it to me?”

Wing it,” she said. “Distance is nothing to living energy. I can send the corrected energy to you from here.”

“How fast does energy travel?” I asked. “At the speed of sound, or is it more like a jetliner? Does it fly direct, or will it have to lay over in Minneapolis?”

Mother laughed and hung up. [emphasis original]

. . .

I tried to forget that night. For the first time in fifteen years, I closed my journal and put it away. Journaling is contemplative, and I didn’t want to contemplate anything.

. . .

But what has come between me and my father is more than time or distance. It is a change in the self. I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.


That last quote should remind me how change must be embraced throughout life: who I am now is not the same “me” as a decade or three in the future or past. I am only who I am now.


[wrote the following in notes for Pachinko, but applies more to this book] Knowledge and education as light in the darkness, as Sagan describes science:

Many good people who have seldom read books in their lives, especially as adults, recognize their own ignorance of science, history, books, art. Yet they know themselves all the same, and in that, they are wise, patient, and usually kind. And after passing several hundred books, especially with a long stretch of space and time in our lives to reflect, many of us respect the infinite grandeur of knowledge, and the equal infinitude of our own ignorance. Little by little, year by year we learn. Not after reading a thousand or ten thousand books will our knowledge ever be complete, nor our education finished. The light humbles us, as it should, and we, hopefully a little wiser than when we began, must be patient and kind.

It is those of us who have read few books, usually less than a few dozen and worst of all less than ten, who are blinded by the light of new knowledge. We become so transformed by each new book that we become disciples to its ideas, and must evangelize the truth to others. Our minds expand and our personalities beg to express some creative “output” for each prior torrent of knowledge “input” towards us that we proselytize and attempt to spread the word of each gospel-like book as we finish it. This is especially the case with nonfiction.

So lies the danger of “education,” the in-between space where we cannot turn back, we cannot stray, lest this short exposure to the light burn and scar us. We must always continue to grow.