This weekend I read Tara Westover’s new memoir Educated in one sitting.
The story it tells is compelling: raised in a survivalist, fundamentalist-Mormon family in Idaho, Westover first attends school at age seventeen (her first day at Brigham Young University) and ascends to the academic heights of Cambridge University and Harvard, from which she achieves fellowships and a PhD, at the cost of her relationship with her family. On the surface, it’s a Horatio Alger story of success through hard work, although Westover resists that line. Indirectly, it’s a portrait of America’s preferred intellectual style, circa the early twenty-first century – reality is what I say it is, especially if I am an aging, fearful man, and woe be unto you if you disagree. And it invites us to reflect how education can help illuminate and confront this attitude as we work toward common truths and a common good.
Westover’s portrait of her family echoes notes we’ve seen by now in the Bundy-family standoff and Ruby Ridge and end-of-days Internet rhetoric: suspicion of government and conventional medicine, lectures on “the Illuminati,” herbal remedies offered for everything from cuts and burns to traumatic brain injury. None of the characters are one-dimensional – Westover’s not that simplistic a writer, and they are, after all, her family – but the details add up to a portrait of a family held captive by a father’s fears (possibly reinforced by mental illness), which ripple outward and replicate themselves in everyone else. Westover’s mother trains herself as an herbalist and midwife, despite her initial hesitations. “Homeschooling” takes a backseat to work in the family metal scrapyard. Young Tara, visiting her grandmother’s house, is scolded for not washing her hands after using the toilet, which she secretly considers “frivolous.” Independence of thought is encouraged but selectively applied: the family keeps prepping despite the non-apocalypse of Y2K, and Westover’s father demands “proof” from her that her brother threatened her with a knife, although he witnessed it. Despite the beauty of the wilderness setting and the humor, grit, and self-reliance which do mark the family’s life together, its emotional temperature, set by the father, is clear: The truth is what I say it is.
Educated depicts the power of self-isolation to spin a world around oneself that locks one in while calling itself freedom. Of course, this is a process from which none of us is immune. We’re all always struggling to keep the tents of our own small selves from collapsing in, a process both reflected and assisted by our own inescapable egos and by the echo chambers of pretty much anything with a screen. As someone who’s just published a book about growing your own food and developing independence as an artist and being mindful of technology’s power to overtake us from within our own heads, I’m constantly wondering where to draw the line. When does my distrust of Facebook and all its works slide over into tinfoil-hat land? Conversely, what is normal functioning in the world as it is (directing study-abroad programs, I do, alas, need a smartphone), what is healthy resistance (no cable, lots of books, trying to walk instead of drive), and what is conformity for convenience’s sake, shrugging your shoulders (oh, well, I don’t have anything to hide) and “checking in” online at that restaurant to get your 10% off coupon in exchange for your personal data? These are questions we all have to ask ourselves, in our world as it is.
Perhaps one part of the answer lies in the degree to which meaningful contact with a range of people, places, ideas, and experiences different from yourself have allowed you to make mature decisions about what reality is and how it works. It lies in the education you have sought and the education you have received. (Denying children formal schooling is one way of keeping them at home, working in the scrapyard.) And this is where we go back to men, women, power, and that fundamental problem – reality is what I say it is – which repeats itself in societies and families, as the tyranny of the ruler authorizes the tyranny of the husband, the brother, the father throughout time and all over the world. (English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, daughter of an alcoholic, abusive father, knew this well: “A great portion of the misery that wanders, in hideous forms, around the world,” she writes in 1792’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “is allowed to arise from the negligence of parents.” Perhaps this inspired the shambling, lonely creature in her daughter Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; we know from Educated that Wollstonecraft inspired Westover too.) Even a cursory look at history shows how we use the mind’s own fears to limit both body and mind, in our selves and in other people: gaslighting, intimidation, no-it-wasn’t, he-said-she-said, you’re-just-being-paranoid, on and on in a Bluebeard’s chamber of self-doubt and second-guessing. And gender matters here, as everywhere. Culture has made it a little too easy, for a few too many years, for men to run their ideas up the flagpole of personal belief and force others to salute, exiling women who insist on this power for themselves and encouraging all of us to neglect common standards of morality and judgment, right or wrong, the old-school golden rule, in the process. This is and has always been where tyranny starts: within the heart that insists I am entitled to have things all my way, all the time. Reality is what my own unexamined greed, fears, and insecurities say it is.
Yet Westover’s memoir makes clear what this stance costs men themselves. Her brother Luke (a pseudonym) accidentally saturates his jeans leg with gasoline as he’s helping their father drain fuel tanks from junked cars, then suffers horrible burns when they catch fire. He can’t get the pants off because, lacking a belt, he has tied them up with baling twine, in a slick, firm knot. Charismatic, violent brother Shawn (also a pseudonym), who once badgered their father for safer equipment, falls twenty feet and hits a rebar-studded concrete wall on the way down. In a motorcycle accident, he suffers a traumatic brain injury, as their mother has years before. The father himself suffers burns, too, when a gas tank explodes, hot enough to melt his welding shield and the lower half of his face. Anyone who grew up in a rural world, as I did, will recognize the tangled risks and realities here: working hard to make money while lacking the money and time and mental space to equip yourself safely means you can cripple or kill the working body that’s your only means of support. And to be a man is to be tough, to move on, to keep going. Remember, ruefully, the voices you’ve heard from men you’ve known yourself, brushing away concern about finger-crushing trailer hitches or thick snaky brush: don’t worry, I’ll be all right. Because the work has to get done, one way or another. And we adjust what’s in our minds accordingly so we can live with it.
Even though Westover herself, hewing throughout to understatement and her own experience, doesn’t make this leap, readers may find themselves wondering what her story says about our country, right now. Hard work, self-reliance, and healthy skepticism on the one hand, isolation, paranoia, dangerous disconnection from reality on the other hand, and both hands attached to the same body, fed by the same beating heart. This is the troubled soil in which the seed of “fake news” as accusations against The New York Times and The Washington Post have taken root. This points to what I saw painted on the back window of an apparently normal station wagon on the highway, driven by an apparently normal, late-middle-aged white couple: Certainly Not News, with the initial letters rendered as the CNN logo. This fuels the shameful contortions that render gun control as merely a matter of managing “mental illness.” This is how a country can watch as children are slaughtered in their classrooms – again – then watch as other children ask that the grownups ostensibly elected to represent them do something to keep them safe. This is how people can hurl hateful slurs and claim, against all evidence, to be innocent of their history and their meaning.
If you are a teacher, you finish this book pondering what education really means, and how you can help students step into mature understandings of reality and truth for themselves. “From my father,” Westover writes, “I had learned that books were to be either adored or exiled. Books that were of God – books written by the Mormon prophets or the Founding Fathers – were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself. I had been taught to read the words of men like Madison as a cast into which I ought to pour the plaster of my own mind, to be reshaped according to the contours of their faultless model. I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself….To write my essay I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration….There were wonderful suppositions embedded in this method of reading: that books are not tricks, and that I was not feeble.” Helping students engage with ideas this way, I think, means giving them plentiful and direct exposure to texts and conversation about texts, in person, without the distractions of screens and other noise (this is why I ask students to stash phones as soon as they enter our room, and why I increasingly teach – yes, teach – that “reading” while listening to music through headphones is not reading.) It means letting students experience challenges, including the friction of confusion and difficulty, while supporting yet not over-softening those emotions. Interestingly, Westover’s experience of physical challenges, undeniable contributors to toughness and resilience, seems to have shaped her view of education too. “There was absolutely nothing safe about my own education — nothing,” she has told the online magazine Bustle. “If education is going to be a true tool of self-creation and a way for people to actually challenge their ideas, this idea that education should be a safe thing has to go away.” Overall, her view of education encompasses the role of risk and discovery in the making of a self. “I became aware when I was getting my education — and I mean education in the broadest sense, not just classrooms and exams, but the people you meet, travel, the things that you read on your own — that there is something odd about the way people talk about education, almost as a stepping stone on the social ladder: a way to get a better job, to make more money, to live in a better neighborhood. That just didn’t ring true with education in the way that I had experienced it. I don’t think education is so much about making a living, it’s about making a person. And that, to me, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with class or religion or any of the rest of it, because everyone should have the opportunity to participate in the making of their own mind.”
The opportunity to participate in the making of their own mind, and the opportunity, and the responsibility, to check their own needs and versions of reality against a common good that supports humans and the nonhuman species and ecosystems with which we share our endangered earth. That is a pretty good definition of what education is all about, especially in a time when “truth” itself is at stake. Yet voices from beyond our own lives, from the past, can help us continue to seek it. “Truth is not with impunity to be sported with,” warns Mary Wollstonecraft, “for the practiced dissembler, at last, becomes the dupe of his own arts, loses that sagacity which has been justly termed common sense; namely, a quick perception of common truths—which are constantly received as such by the unsophisticated mind, though it might not have had sufficient energy to discover them itself, when obscured by local prejudices.” May we all continue to seek education honestly, forthrightly, respectfully, and bravely, and use what we learn to build a better world.