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“Educated” by Tara Westover

Born in Idaho from a family of Survivalist Mormons, Tara Westover does not set foot in a classroom until she is a young woman. She publishes her first memoir, Educated, in 2018. It is the story of her life from when she is a child to today, juxtaposed to what can be called a mind awakening breakthrough: a step by step discovery of her own position in the world, and of how that same position can change thanks to a gradual process that begins with education.

Choosing to walk an educational path within a family circle that not only does not believe in institutionalized education, but also feels threatened by the government’s intervention in private lives, comes with an array of challenges for Tara. These challenges range from informing her parents on her desire to attend university, to facing the family’s angry disappointment towards an act that God would have disapproved of and consider a negligence towards the expectations her religion demanded.

Tara is part of a numerous family that finds its seeming equilibrium in an embedded patriarchal system controlled by the towering presence of her father, Gene: a zealously devout man who believes God has entitled him with the earthly mission of shielding his family from the government’s impending ambush in their household. He is furthermore convinced a looming apocalypse is endangering their lives, and his controlling demeanor more than often gives rise to paranoid delusions. As a consequence, Tara’s mother, Faye, respects her husband’s calling, and works her whole life as a midwife and herbal healer. Together with her four siblings, Tara grows up blindly trusting their father’s view of the world and the life plans that have already been draw for them all. For Tara, specifically, these plans translate into becoming a midwife, giving birth to her own children, and leading a life that overall mirrors the one she sees her own parents living.

However, as Tara grows closer to her older brother Tyler, she is by and by able to think of herself as someone different from her mother, sisters, and female town acquaintances, opting for curiosity and existential insecurity rather than unquestioned – or unquestionable – obedience and knowledge. Tyler is the only sibling who independently decides to attend college and gain and institutionalized education: a choice that estranges him from his family, but sets up an example that does not take too long for Tara to consider and, later, to follow. After years of scarce homeschooling, with her brother’s initial guidance, she finally decides to take her SAT exam so as to apply to Brigham Young University, in Utah: she passes the exam at her second try, and moves to Utah at seventeen years old.

Her educational path turns out to be quite a bumpy road, punctuated by financial instability, core life questioning, and upsetting eye-openings about an isolated childhood at times hindered, at times protected by the imminent mountain dominating the rural landscape. During her journey, unable to secure the school year’s tuition, Tara finds herself at a crossroad: accept financial aid from a government her family despises and has taught her to distrust, or move back home and work for her father’s junkyard (for whom she had worked every summer up to then, exposing herself to life threatening injuries). After revealing her hindrances to the church’s bishop, and after accepting his assistance in securing her financial funding, she resumes her studies, grows a profound interest in history, and wins a scholarship for Cambridge University, in England.

In a 2019 interview for Aspen Institute, Tara Westover confesses how being granted financial subsidy at a time when one is in desperate need of it, can be a life saver and a turning point in the way one conceives of education. Moreover, her relation with the system turned out to be completely different from the government’s manipulative workings her father was inclined to complain about. Tara grew up with the overarching idea that help from the government was granted only to make one dependant on it, thus preventing one from eventually gaining their independence back. Yet, her experience turned out to be quite distinct. For her, to receive financial help meant not returning home to work for her father, allowing her to keep a promise to herself: continue tracing her own educational path. In other words, having sufficient money translated into being able focus on things besides money, as one’s brain is not completely occupied with having enough so as to get through the day or the week. As a matter of fact, she confesses that she was a “terrible student, in the sense that [she] didn’t learn very much” until she reached financial stability.

Embedded in Tara Westover’s narration is also a story of the rural-urban educational divide her country is suffering, and that she reunites in a lack of sympathy and an excess of condescension from one side to another based on very little, and inaccurate, information. She calls the cause of this divide the breaking of charity, explaining it with the following words:

It came out of the Salem with trials and it refers to that moment when two members of the same tribe disfellowship one another, and they decide they belong in different tribes. That to me is the biggest political social problem we have. More that any other. [It is all] a side effect of that fundamental fact that people no longer feel like people on the other side are part of the same tribe. And what we know about persuasion is you can’t actually persuade anybody by yelling at them, and if the only thing you know about a person is that they voted for someone you don’t like, your ability to persuade them not to do that is entirely compromised. The only way that anybody was persuaded of anything is by someone who cared about them, understood them, understood their point of view and was able to incorporate all of that into an argument that changed their mind […] and I know this because I had to change my mind about pretty much everything. (“Educated: A Conversation with Tara Westover”)

Coming from a rural area, the same idea that education can change one’s mind frame and encourage to grow separately from one’s family, as it happened to Tara, is what makes one scared of the effects an urban educational system can have on one’s fixed imaginary.

And she does believe education is a huge risk, because it should change you. However, it all depends on how one conceives of education:

It is not so much a state of certainty as it is a process of inquiry. I think an educated person is not someone who can recite an army of facts, and knows a lot of things, but someone who has some flexibility of mind, someone who is willing to examine their own prejudice, who has acquired a depth of understanding that allows them to see the world from another point of view. And I know it is a radical thing to say, but I kind of suspect that education maybe is less about knowing more than someone and maybe more about knowing someone, really knowing someone who is not like you. (Ibid.)

Tara Westover was a visiting fellow at Harvard University in 2010. After returning to Cambridge, she earned a PhD in history in 2014.

di Livia Bellardini

Works Cited

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random House US, 2018. Westover, Tara. “Educated: A Conversation with Tara Westover.” Youtube, uploaded by The Aspen Institute.

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