Educated by Tara Westover: A Book Review

An Odyssey From Rural Idaho to the Modern World

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by Aina De Lapparent Alvarez

Tara first set foot in a classroom when she was seventeen years old. Before that, she had lived in rural Idaho with her family of survivalist Mormons. So at the verge of adulthood, Tara was the ultimate fish out of water. She stumbled on a word that all of her peers knew since they were toddlers. And it took a long time for her friends to understand that Tara was not denying the Holocaust, she’d never heard of it.  In her memoir Educated, Tara revisits the memory of her childhood, her changing relationship with her family and the rest of the world and  her decision to rebel against her parents and get a formal education. It is a powerful reminder that education is a personal choice and an extraordinary path for failure and growth to resolve our most conflicting identities.

Tara doesn’t know her birthday as no birth certificate was issued when she was born. Her parents centered her life on preparing for doomsday and they struggled to be completely self-sufficient. To avoid all “California socialism”, Tara’s father has decided to pull his eldest children out of school and to never send his youngest. He goes as far on deny modern medicine, insisting that his wife become a midwife, a dangerous activity which she could be charged for should there be complications during the birth.

Sociologists such as Durkheim view higher education as the way for the privileged to pass down their power to their children, keeping meritocracy at its foundations to sustain the belief that universities do in fact advance society. I think that the university admission process, particularly in the United States but also in Europe and Canada, is a complicated path that all social classes face, a path that is made even more inaccessible to those from low-income backgrounds. In most cases, our education system and extracurricular activities are all tailored for the university route. So some of us tend to become the university student before we ever set a foot on a campus and we never question this predestined route. This is how as students we grow from year to year our cynicism about the real value of knowledge we get in university.

In a radically opposite perspective, for Tara, teaching herself algebra to pass the ACT and attend Brigham Young University and then continuing her studies overseas meant betraying her family; slowly but surely. The book excels at showing us the progressive rift between the parents, the three children who don’t have a high school diploma and the three others who obtained their PhDs. The intimate look at “family politics”, with her siblings’ sides and provisional alliances between members to reach their goals that happen in all families makes it highly relatable. Through Tara’s honesty, her narrative voice is shaped. She never claims she is a hero, and her lack of direction as she navigates becoming an adult is relatable. Yet, she doesn’t self-pity her past but rather tries to focus in the way she experiences events as they unfold. At the same time, she doesn’t hide from us the impact her parents made on her. For example, once as she was struggling to make ends meet she didn’t want to take a government grant because as her dad told her if the government gives you something then it owns you. Many scenes are shocking and at times violent. She recalls stories of working the land without equipment, a job so dangerous that she barely makes it out alive. Still, in her childhood, there are moments of tenderness, which she misses and recalls fondly. This stark difference between her dual upbringing, at times over-bearing and normal, makes the book difficult to read and impossible to put down. Throughout, Tara never mocks her parents also seem to be quite smart and her parent’s relatively successful self-reliance and strength of character are inspiring.

This book is not so much about becoming a successful individual, it is more about becoming an individual and pointing at the importance of privileging education as a prosperous opportunity. University, despite all its flaws, is a bubble where we can reinvent ourselves, take some distance with our background, and chose how we negotiate our upbringing; a negotiation that is always ambivalent. Though Tara’s childhood caused her to feel uncomfortable in university, not trust her peers, struggle to make friends, and come across as ignorant, her perseverance is also a consequence of her parents’ teaching. Through her studies in the humanities she begins to understand her family’s stark difference compared to others, her traumatic past experiences, and begins imagining the identity she could build for herself. Educated by Tara Westover meditates the inspiring message that there is always a cost in choosing the path less travelled by.

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