EDUCATED by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)

What is education for?

This deceptively simple question is guaranteed to open a can of worms.

In Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, the severe school board superintendent Thomas Gradgrind expresses the view that “facts alone are wanted in life”. Schooling in Victorian times typically followed the view that young captives in the classroom were little more that vessels to be filled.

In our supposedly more enlightened age, decent-minded folk are scathing towards such blatant child abuse. The robotic process of memorizing and reproducing information is rightly dismissed in favor of an educational model that encourages students to, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “shape the questions worth pursuing”.

In a talk to teachers, James Baldwin followed the Chomskyan line when he said “The purpose of education is to create in a person the ability of to look at the world for himself”. But Baldwin was also aware of how problematic a well-informed, critical populace could be and added that “no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around”.

In ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover , the author implicitly asks readers to consider where instruction ends and indoctrination begins.

In a note to readers, she advises: “This is not a book about Mormonism. Neither is it a book about religious belief”. Yet the fundamentalist of her survivalist parents and their rigid application of principles prescribed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have a huge and primarily negative impact of her upbringing.

A weaker, less stubborn personality would have been broken and submitted to a conventional life mapped out for her. As it is, she not only survives to tell her remarkable tale but thrives against all odds to become an esteemed scholar and to exemplify the virtues of individual thought and creative enquiry.


Tara Westover

Westover was brought up in the mountains of Idaho, surroundings vividly rendered in the eloquence and elegance of a passage which explains the character-forming nature of the region:
“There’s a 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. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama”.

As the youngest of seven, she struggled to establish a sense of autonomy from her loving yet passive mother (a self-taught herbalist and midwife) and, more crucially, from her domineering, probably bipolar, father . She presents him as being “larger than life and wonderfully incongruous”, admiring yet fearing him in equal measures.

She doesn’t doubt his good intentions but in employing her from an early age sifting through metal is his junkyard he frequently puts faith before safety. Instead of wearing gloves or a hard hat, he assures her that God will protect her from harm, an irrational belief that is proved wrong time after time.

Until she began to think for herself, her life was narrated by others and she accepted her father’s words and teaching. This meant that, like him, she lived in fear of the illuminati, regarded conventional medicine as an abomination of God and accepted his view that schools served only to further the cause of the devil. She never set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen.

She writes at one point “I felt alienated from myself” and tells how she only gradually learned how to “to construct my own mind”. This was a lonely and painful process inevitably leading her to the verge of a nervous breakdown and a realization that she could only preserve her individuality by permanently distancing herself from her family. Her instincts became her guardians.

Every drama needs a villain and that role is taken by her brother Shawn. This a pseudonym and it speaks volumes that she felt the need to change the name of her own sibling. His cruelty, both physical and psychological, is relentless. Ultimately His brutality, which her mother and father stubbornly refused to recognize, was the catalyst to cutting ties completely with her family.

The elephant in the room (book) is the current nature of her religious belief. It’s plain that she has come to reject the fundamentalist teachings of mormonism but she never openly doubts the existence of God. In addition, although the book follows her life from childhood to adulthood, she does not write about her sexual development, doubtless reasoning that this sensitive topic belongs to another book.

This memoir was written while still in her late 20s, an age that would be considered too young for any ‘normal’ upbringing. At her lowest point she wrote one phrase constantly in her notebooks: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?” and I get the strong impression that a prime motivating factor was the desire to reclaim and assert her own sanity.

With honesty, humanity and with a remarkable absence of bitterness, the valuable affirmation she shares is that a true education means making active choices. Ultimately, you can decide to remake yourself or submit passively to being remade by others. In this book, the negative consequences of choosing the latter path are never in doubt.