‘Educated’ author shares her story in Crane lecture
Tara Westover talks about rethinking the education paradigm and offering choices in learning
When best-selling author Tara Westover was 17 and cramming for the ACT, the odds of her becoming “educated” seemed prohibitively stacked against her.
Her survivalist father had a pathological fear of government, so she had never stepped foot into a school. The only science book in their home was a children’s picture book. Her mother lost enthusiasm for homeschooling after teaching Westover, the youngest of seven children, to read. That left Westover to her own educational devices — studying the Bible and the Book of Mormon because they were the most readily available.
The family junkyard was her schoolground. Scrapping cars with her dad and siblings, she learned the elemental distinctions between cast iron and copper wire. She learned about actions and reactions when a metal shard pinned her inside a bin as her father used a forklift to empty it, nearly sending her to her death. When her brother was horribly burned and her father refused to seek medical help, Westover got a shock course in subcutaneous anatomy helping her herbalist mother treat his wounds.
But Westover prevailed and by dint of will graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University and received a PhD from Cambridge University. Her book, Educated: A Memoir, quickly landed on the New York Times best-seller list, where it has remained for 27 weeks.
Westover shared her enthralling story at the College of Education and Human Ecology’s inaugural Crane Lecture Series September 6. The series invites nationally recognized speakers to Columbus to inspire and connect with the community about issues related to education.
Westover is the first to admit she’s not an educator; her degree is in intellectual history and political thought. Even so, she went from having an extreme educational deficit to earning a degree at a top world academic institution. For educators grappling with issues of education equity and access, Westover’s story poses intriguing questions … and holds much promise.
EHE asked her about her unconventional upbringing, and what we can learn about education from her experience.
Q: Did being denied an education impact your drive to receive one?
A: I don’t know if it made me want it more or if it in some way accounts for the good luck I had in education. I get asked that question and it kind of makes me laugh a little because I always wonder, if I say yes, does that mean we’re going to start denying people an education to see what happens? (Laughs.) I can totally understand why people find it compelling, but for me, I have no idea. But also, what’s the policy implication of that?
I think people want to understand so badly why some people thirst for learning and other people don’t. I don’t know if I have the answer. I wish I did. I know one thing: Human beings need to feel they have some level of control over their lives. I think we all feel like we need that. Education is one of those weird areas where we don’t actually give people a lot of scope for control over what they learn and how they learn it.
Q: How do you think we can give people more control?
A: For some people education is job training, essentially ... to prepare people to work and support themselves and participate in the economy. But another side of it is that idea of self-creation, of self-actualization . . . the individual participating in the making of their own mind, and getting access to different ideas, all the different perspectives that they can. As much as an education is that, in any meaningful way, I think we have to try to introduce some level of decision-making into it. I don’t mean anything radical, like throw out the curriculum and let kids decide what they learn. But I think even just the sense of choice — do you want to read Austin or do you want to read Dickens – might give people a little bit of that feeling (of control) over their own mind and their own education and their own lives.
Q: If you had your own children, would you borrow some things from your childhood that propelled you to learn?
A: My brother, Tyler, homeschools his kids and I think he does a really wonderful job. They’re part of a homeschool co-op, so they get a lot of social time, and they get a lot of classroom time. But I think they also have an amount of flexibility. If one of the kids just becomes obsessed with glaciers … they can have weeks where their whole family is just obsessed with glaciers and they will just pursue that. It’s an interesting thing. I’m not sure they make any distinction between play and learning. I don’t know that they’ve experienced it as two distinct tasks or activities. As they get older, they are made to do math, and they do it. But in general, they want to learn about things for social reasons, and it’s a real choice for them. I would borrow that from my upbringing.
Q: Our college works to improve urban education. A lot of kids deal with trauma — homelessness, parental drug use or abuse. You experienced physical abuse and struggled when your family had rejected you during your PhD studies. How did that affect your ability to learn?
A: When you’re trying to survive and you’re in survival mode, it is pretty hard to focus on anything else. That’s not realistic. Humans, physiologically, have certain responses when you’re in survival mode. Nothing else is going to be able to get through unless it’s pretty directly related (to the trauma). You mentioned the time at Cambridge which is probably the most obvious. But when you were asking the question I was kind of thinking of the first FAFSA grant I ever got. There are certain types of survival trauma that people go through that are financial.
Q: How did financial trauma affect you?
A: My first year at BYU, I was learning, I was interested, I was trying to be engaged. I was doing my homework out of fear because I had to keep a nearly flawless GPA in order to keep my scholarship. I knew if I lost my scholarship I wouldn’t be coming back. I was quite literally learning because of fear and fear was the driving motivator. But it was a completely different experience once I started getting that little grant. Suddenly I actually had space in my mind to do homework for other reasons than terror. It became a very different kind of learning. I read books. I neglected assignments because I was really curious about other assignments. If something really caught me, I could go read a couple of books on that and ignore the next chapter, or get a little behind and do less well on a quiz because I really cared about something. That is really a much better way to learn, I think. You don’t want to terrify people into learning. It’s a much better state when your mind is calm and then it can see what it’s drawn to.
Q: A whole lot of stressed-out college students must agree with you.
A: Maybe we need to rethink the degree to which we run education as a system of competition. That might be a takeaway. Is that the best way to learn? I’m not a psychologist but you might want to ask in a serious way, is the best way to learn to take 50 people and teach them something and then rank them afterward?
Q: Do you find yourself coming under the microscope?
A: A little bit; I pretty much resist that. I think a lot of people want to say, what you need to do is explain to us why some kids do well and some kids don’t. Maybe it’s the social scientist in me, I feel there’s not anywhere near the kind of sample size to understand that. Three of my siblings have PhDs and four didn’t graduate from high school. The question from that is, is there something about my family that led to that, specifically about the hard work we were taught as kids, or is it just a fluke? I don’t have the data for that. Maybe statistically if you take a bunch of kids and deprive them of education, a little under half of them will do great. Seven is a pretty terrifying sample size.
What the story can do is more in the narrative of showing, this is who I was before, and this is what happened to me when I got access to books, to learning, to really smart people. My education experiences have been extreme. When I was younger, it was pretty much an experience of profound ignorance. Then later in my life, I got access to some of the grandest institutions in the whole world. What does that do? What ideals do we have about education and what does it actually achieve? The story for me is a defense of education, as self-creation, as an ideal.
Q: Your expertise is history, but it sounds like you have put a lot of thought into education.
A: The book’s called Educated and I titled it that way on purpose . . . I wanted to offer a story that was about education. Not education as a means to make money or get a better job. But, what is education supposed to do for an individual? For my life anyway, education was pretty starkly visible as an important factor. I was made into a very different person due to my education. You wouldn’t necessarily have had the same impact on my life if you just taught me Excel, as (you would teaching me) about the Civil Rights Movement or the Holocaust or what it meant to have different narratives of history in competition with each other.
These were the things that made me into a different person. And yes, that also leads to useful job skills, etc. I wanted to offer a defense of education as a holistic idea, as a large project that involves giving people the tools to remake themselves and participate in the making of their own mind, not just get a better job, live in a nicer neighborhood and send their kids to a nicer school. I wanted to ask, what is an education and what is important about it?
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I think I’m going to do some journalistic writing. I’m going to try to get a documentary made about rural education. I’m pretty intense about it. What draws me to it is that rural schools are actually quite good schools in general. There are good graduation rates; they perform well on tests. What they struggle with is what’s called transitional alignment, which is getting kids out of high school and into the university or some kind of trade or job. I’m interested in the difficulties that rural kids are facing, both in trying to stay where they grew up, because a lot of them want to stay, and the economic reasons they are struggling to do that. And then also the ways they struggle when they try to integrate and move into a city, which is affectively a foreign environment for them.