What Does it Mean To Be Educated?

books-690219_1920A college level teacher of rhetoric, who currently teaches memoir and creative writing at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning, I, naturally, was drawn to Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, recommended to me by one of my Fromm students. Why do I say naturally? Because, like Westover, I had to make my way through the higher education maze without the usual formal education background and fill in many missing pieces along the way. As a teacher, I also am interested in how people learn.

Educated is a harrowing account of Westover’s childhood growing up in an extremely dysfunctional and abusive family on an isolated Utah farm. The father was, and is, a fundamentalist Mormon survivalist who believes public education and anything connected to mainstream society is evil. Thus, he didn’t send his seven kids to public school. Nor did he allow them to associate much with the townspeople or get treatment from doctors for any ailments. Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate.

Her father ran a kind of junkyard, and Westover spent many hours doing grueling work for him, barely missing death on several occasions because the jobs were so dangerous. She also was on the receiving end of her brother Shawn’s sadism. His cruelty resulted in multiple injuries to Westover that her parents ignored.

Westover’s mother? She mostly bought into her husband’s insistence that she obey his orders, though in later years she did stand up to him and attained a degree of independence. An herbalist and midwife who believes in faith healing and the power of various herbal substances to cure everything, her products eventually caught on beyond the local buyers, and she became a successful businesswoman, making and selling her concoctions from the family home.

A couple of Westover’s brothers do manage to escape this chaotic environment. One of them, Tyler, earned a Ph.D. With his encouragement, Westover timidly steps out into the external world. But in order to pass the ACT and eventually be accepted to Brigham Young University, she had to teach herself the basics. None of this happened without her facing major difficulties along the way—financially, emotionally, and medically. With Tyler’s help, college teachers who recognized her latent intelligence, and her own grit and determination, she not only graduated from Brigham Young University, magna cum laude, but she also earned a Gates Cambridge scholarship and received a MPhil from Trinity College, eventually earning a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge.

As a teacher, I was stunned by how much Westover didn’t know when she entered college at seventeen. Having taught incoming freshmen & women for thirty years, I know what kind of foundation they need to succeed. Even those who had attended private high schools, and had loving parents supporting them, struggled, not just in adjusting to college life but also in managing their studies and social world. Many floundered in spite of all the encouragement they received at home.

Westover had none of these benefits. She was fully on her own and hadn’t a clue how to function in this totally new environment. Her mother’s “home schooling” program hadn’t followed any structure from the outside world and was at best hit or miss. Westover hadn’t learned the basics of grammar, writing, math, biology, etc,, and she had to discard her parents’ interpretation of history. As survivalists, their views were not fact based, and Westover had no idea what the holocaust was, the civil rights movement, or any other well-know event. She was at a tremendous disadvantage.

Reading Educated reminded me somewhat of my own upbringing. I dropped out of high school at the end of the tenth grade and was able to enter college after studying for and passing the GRA. I, also, had many gaps in my knowledge because my stepfather only had an eighth grade education, and my mother just barely finished high school. If it hadn’t been for my grandfather’s influence when I was younger (he had been a Scots Schoolmaster and encouraged me to read, teaching me the alphabet when I was four), I’m not sure I would have found my way to higher education, an experience that largely has formed who I am today.

Educated has become an international best seller because readers love to learn how individuals like Tara Westover survive such difficult beginnings and end up becoming models for others who tap into an inner self that miraculously guides them into a better life. Maybe, ironically, Westbrook’s father did train his daughter to follow his survivalist creed in the sense that she somehow saved herself and, yes, she has survived.

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