house in the mountains

The memoir Educated, by Tara Westover, has been getting a lot of buzz lately. I’m here to tell you that all of the hype is rightfully bestowed. Wow, do I have a book recommendation for you! Honestly, I read the last two-thirds of the book in one day. I had planned to do other things with the day. But I could not break away from this book.

Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho. Her parents, survivalists who were actively planning for the end of the world, did not send her to school. They did not believe in going to doctors or hospitals. Neither did they do much by the way of homeschooling. They educated their children in things like canning, horse training, building barns, managing a junkyard, and herbalism. But there was little book reading outside of Mormon texts, and little exposure to the broader society.

Westover’s memoir explains how, improbably, she moved from this insular childhood to being admitted to Brigham Young University and, eventually, being awarded a PhD by the University of Cambridge in England. But her story is much more than a recitation of degrees attained. It’s not about the degrees at all; it’s about the education.

And the type of education she writes about is the type that cuts closest to who each of us is as a person, in the long flow of time and tradition: whether we believe it or think about it or not. While attending Brigham Young, Westover became aware for the first time that her family habitually practiced casual racism. For the first time, she learned about the history of racism and oppression in America. Here is what she writes about that time in her life:

“I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.”

Here Westover zeroes in on what the word education actually means. It does not mean memorizing facts. It does not mean amassing credentials. It means learning why things are the way they are. It means attaining knowledge that allows you to see that there are choices to be made in this world. Parents often have the best intentions; but that doesn’t mean they always make the best decisions. Growing up, it’s easy to assume that your family has it right, and everyone else is wrong. Getting an education means weighing your assumptions logically against the facts of history and science.

Getting an education also means attaining a measure of control over your own destiny. Knowing that there are choices in the first place gives you the ability to choose. Often, there is a better way.

What unstated traditions sculpted your upbringing? Do they hold up when examined from the perspectives of logic, history, science?