Books We Love – Educated: A Memoir

This review is for the last person standing who hasn’t already read this book and needs a little push. OK–maybe you haven’t read it but you have likely heard of it.  How could you not?  As of this writing, the book has been on the NY Times bestseller list 89 weeks and on countless “best reads” lists including those of Bill Gates and Barack Obama, to name a few.

Educated: A Memoir is the story of Tara Westover and her life as the youngest of seven children born to fundamentalist Mormon parents who live so far off the grid that there would be debates about when the children’s birthdays were and how old they were. They existed without birth certificates, driver’s licenses, medical records, social security numbers, and many of the other identifiers that mark most peoples’ lives. Tara’s world revolves around church activities, helping her mother, who is a reluctant midwife and herbalist, and her father who runs a junk and scrapping business along with the boys of the family.

Schooled at home with very little resources other than the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and a few outdated and misleading textbooks, Tara is taught to read by an older brother who eventually leaves the family compound and attends college at Brigham Young University.  He encourages Tara to do the same. So, at the age of 16, Tara teaches herself basic college algebra and scores a respectable 28 on the ACT, despite having neither a high school diploma nor G.E.D. It is the first time she has ever taken a test and she is accepted into BYU.

With no background information to rely on, Tara struggles to adapt to formal education, but continues to strive in her efforts to learn.  She becomes a pliable sponge, soaking up every bit of knowledge she can despite not understanding the basic historical context of events that most of us take for granted by the time we get to college: the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, Shakespeare, and many other events, people, and places that a basic education entails. Tara comes from a world where all things, good and bad, are defined as either being God’s blessing or God’s wrath.  Even a simple headache is something that has to be endured until God chooses to take it away, without the benefit of modern medicine.

Despite being physically abused by an emotionally disturbed brother and mentally abused by a father who is suspected of being bi-polar with bouts of depression, paranoia, and delusions, Tara perseveres and eventually graduates from BYU, summa cum laude, and attends Cambridge, where she receives a Masters and Doctorate degree in history. She wrote Educated without having any formal writing classes or instruction other than listening to the New Yorker Fiction podcast for inspiration.

Tara Westover, from Profile

Tara was included in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list for 2018, with Bill Gates writing her brief biography. As of April 2019, the book had sold more than 215,000 copies according to Publisher’s Weekly.

The New York Times Book Review compares Educated to another “up from the bootstraps” memoir, The Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance which depicts the struggles that Vance has growing up in Appalachia with pervasive poverty, drug addicted family members, and a culture that had little value for education.  Despite this, Vance manages to rise up out of the despair and earn a law degree from Yale after graduating from Ohio State and serving in the Marines during the Iraq war.  Vance’s story seems much more commonplace and less dramatic, while Westover’s account is almost unbelievable to the point of complete skepticism that a person could accomplish so much with so little background and support.

Despite all the acclaim, Tara seems humble and slightly embarrassed by all the attention.  When asked what the theme or moral of the story is, she simply replies that “it is about education being a personal experience and nothing more.”  The underlying message, however, is that education is not a “one size fits all” prospect. Schools need to look beyond the standard methods and consider unique ways of measuring what it means to be “educated” and how that might look different depending upon where you live and who you are. She also has some concern that education should be about more than just getting a job or beginning a career and that there is intrinsic value in just “being educated.” Geography and economics play a part in defining that education. This book is a testament to that idea and speaks volumes on how family, geography, economics, religion and beliefs all play a part in how we are educated and who we become.

Both books can be found in Smith Library and are worth a soulful look at how we define an education and the road we must travel to get there.

-Blog post by Melinda Pennington ,Evening Library Supervisor