Tara Westover's "Educated"

A story, to put it simply, is a set of circumstances into which is introduced some complication or event that sets a chain of events going that the author unfolds in a way that suits the author’s aesthetic sense of what makes a fitting way for a story to proceed and to end. That can mean, in “The Iliad”, having a number of distinct stories intrude on the overall tale of a man returning home after a war. It can mean having a hero move on from one bad moral choice to the next, as in “Macbeth”. It can mean mixing up stories of courtship with ones of war, as in “War and Peace”. It can mean seeing a story that turns back upon itself, as happens in ballet, and also, maybe, in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”. 

The audience takes its pleasure from, among other things, contemplating how the author has arranged these three basic features of a story--the setting, the impelling circumstances, the logic of the subsequent events--so as to provide insight not only into a particular story but into the possibilities of story itself. That can be trivial, as when flashbacks are used to fill out a melodrama or even in high art where Jane Austen uses flashbacks of what had gone on earlier, as in “Pride and Prejudice” to explain what is happening in the present. Two notable inventions of storytelling are “The Book of Ruth” and “Great Expectations”. In the Biblical story, the precipitating event is the death of a husband and the decision of the widow to accompany her mother-in-law back to her own homeland rather than to stay in a place where she presumably has some connections. When the two get to a place that is new to Ruth, Naomi, her ex-mother-in-law, takes it upon herself to arrange for a new and prosperous marriage for a girl who has no property. The author unfolds a story that is procedural: how to get a man while observing all the proprieties. The tension in the story is that things could always go wrong with any of the initiatives that Naomi proposes. Boaz might decide not to allow her to gather gleanings, a favor perhaps granted only to camp followers, not women wanting to be thought respectable. And every time, Ruth is successful, and so the marriage comes about, the reader relieved that that is what happened, even though this briefly told tale has been emotionally exhausting because of the tension built up that something might go wrong with Naomi’s plans. 

Charles Dickens presents a story from the secular rather than the religious world in “Great Expectations” in that it is an answer to the argument of the previous Romantic Age that a love story, such as the one in “Wuthering Heights”, is written in the stars rather than in circumstances-- although Ruth’s story also can be seen in very secular terms, there being no God invoked except in the very modern sense that God is the unspoken name of whatever it is that makes things work out. Dickens tells his story by establishing two facts that intrude on the life of the young Pip, who lives in a cottage with his older brother and his older brother’s wife, and so is a youth who has already seen misfortune. The good fortune that overtakes him comes in the form of two traumatic events. First, he is accosted by a runaway prisoner whom he helps, so he thinks, out of fear, and then he is introduced into Mrs. Haversham’s household to be a play companion to Estella, her ward. He is caught between the influence of someone suffering the desolation of an outcast and the affectations and self inflicted anguish of those with wealth and comes to think that the money that allows him to move to London and make his way into becoming a member of the middle class was provided by Mrs. Haversham when it came, instead, from the riches that the escaped prisoner had made for himself while in exile. So we have a story that contains a moral about who is really beneficent. We also have a story where its telling allows Pip to misunderstand his condition and so not to appreciate that what he makes of himself he learns from the people he met in London who looked after him, such as Mr. Wimmick, the office manager for the attorney who administers his anonymous grant, rather than from the supposedly strong psychological figures in his life. The body of the story is the key, not its origins, and so Dickens is using his play on story to provide his meaning and not just a structure whereby he can tell his story.

Which brings me to Tara Westover’s very well received memoir of this year, “Educated”. It tells the story of a girl brought up without schooling by a Fundamentalist father and yet makes her way to Oxford where she receives a Ph. D. in history. Now there is a rag to riches story, everyone aware of her less than humble origins and her grand accomplishment. It is a story worthy of Dickens. How did that story come about? What was the precipitating event or events? I would suggest that the power of the book is not only in its bizarre or outlier features; it is also in the way she tells or constructs her story, how she mobilizes the elements of story.

Westover spends a good deal of space telling what her life was like, what were the circumstances of her life, before she made the great leap of starting her schooling. Her family made its living from building sheds and farming a junkyard for metals. All the children, including Tara, who went to work when she was ten or eleven, were employed at the junkyard. Her father believed that the government and hospitals were the domain of the devil and he stockpiled so as to prepare for the Days of Abomination, when those institutions would be destroyed and everyone who survived would have to be self sufficient. Tara’s mother was a sometime midwife and full time herbalist, preparing concoctions of her own invention. And yet the family was not isolated even if their way of life was isolating. They attended the Mormon Church in town; they had books and music tapes and so they all learned to read; they had a car and could travel to visit far off relatives; Tara received music lessons and sang in the Church Choir and was the star of a production  of “Annie”. What kept her family separate from other families was their ideology and their devotion to their own family and its ways. There was a great deal of cruelty and a number of serious vehicular accidents and life threatening workplace accidents at the junkyard that could have been avoided with a modicum of caution.The mother was left brain damaged even if she did continue as an herbalist and advisor to midwives, and the father was badly burned, the family avoiding hospitals because they were part of Satan’s conspiracy. 

Tara gives numerous explanations of why she was different and why she drifted off to get an education. One is that her mother had been raised middle class and so had been attracted to the independent life up on the mountain by a husband who had not yet become mad and so Tara was just closing the circle, moving back to the life of respectability. Another was that the family was not capable of replicating itself, each child moving off to live a separate life as soon as they were able to and Tara was no different. Another is that the industrial accident which involved her had scared her and so she decided to make her move towards becoming a girl from the town as soon as she could. What the long delay in the move towards education shows is that Tara, like the rest of the family, was deeply attracted to life on the mountain and in the junkyard and so it would be a wrench to live otherwise. The book does this portrait of her circumstances by building suspense to the point where the true change in Tara’s life would take place, which is when her education would begin, just as Pip’s life is ever changed when he learns that he can go to London because he has come into some mysterious inheritance.

So there is some anticipation in wondering how Westover will handle the substance of her own education. Will she take you into the classroom? Will she give access to her own body of thought, or how she comes to grasp what is being offered? Will it shock or be welcome? Will she be in need of what we would today call a “safe space” so she doesn’t have to give up her prejudices too quickly?

Westover spends her first few years in college still trying to escape her emotional ties to her violent and Fundamentalist family. They are against her joining the world of the non-believers and Tara continues to think that her family is on the side of truth even though she can no longer follow their course. Westover, however, does provide enough information about her early years in college for her experiences to provide a natural experiment to make empirical an old philosophical conundrum: how can you learn anything if you don’t know anything? The usual philosophical answer is that a person usually know enough to get started learning something new. Westover starts knowing very little indeed. She had never been in a classroom since the third grade before entering Brigham Young University based only on her ACT score and a fake letter claiming she had been home schooled on a standard secondary school curriculum. All she had read was the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and assorted religious tracts. So how did she embark on her education and what of what she didn’t know turn out to be easier or harder to master?

First off, getting educated meant mastering the procedures of education. Not all tests are bubble score sheet tests, as is the ACT. Also, Tara had to be told to read the textbook and not just look at the pictures of the paintings that are part of her Western Civilization course.  This is a very important point. One reason minorities of color are said to do badly in the early years of schooling is that they have not yet mastered the discipline of paying attention and following instructions and so are early on defeated by the educational game.

Second, grades are a good measure of whether or not you have learned something. Tara certainly treated them as such. They are not to be laughed off as something some people are good at getting while others are “really” learning something that doesn’t show up on tests. There is nothing wrong with cramming for tests or going over a textbook until the material is mastered. It doesn’t have to come either easily or not at all.

Thirdly, it is easier to learn abstract systems because they require no context. So Tara barely mentions that she got straight “A’s”in her music theory classes, originally intending to be a music major so that she could go on to become a choir director. She works very hard in College Algebra and got an “A” in that. Smarts pay off. That may be why children from immigrant families, if they have any smarts at all, go into science and engineering. It is because these are closed systemes, however much imagination is required to add to the corpus of scientific knowledge.

And, fourth, it is difficult to learn things like history and literature that do require context. Tara stumbles in Western Civilization because it takes awhile for her to recognize that Europe is not just another country, like France. She can respond to specific information as occurs when a history professor gives a slide illustrated lecture on the Civil Rights Movement and Westover sees for the first time pictures of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., of scarred slaves and lynchings and dogs and water cannons used against teenagers. These pictures are given more authority, I would add, by a professor calmly lecturing about them in a university auditorium. Tara’s father might regard that lecture as “fake news” and it is true enough that professors are selective about what they present, benefiting from the presumption that the selected material is a fair representation of what the professor might have selected. So Tara was already “converted” to the secular world because she gave credence to what was presented to her when she was in it. She now could understand why she had found so ugly when her brother called her “nigger” when she was covered with grime from a day’s work in her father’s junkyard. 

I have seen the same process of facts having an impact on undergraduates. An aggressive and cynical African American student asked me in an Introductory Sociology course why it was people referred to poor urban Black communities with the obviously derogatory term “ghetto”. My answer to that was that the term referred to the part of Venice in which Jews were legally required to live, the term adapted to refer to any place where a minority group was likely to live because of finances and social pressure even if not legally compelled to. The student’s response to my standard explanation was amazement, as if he had never been exposed to that explanation or any explanation of that sort, which was to identify a category of cases that are similar enough to be placed together. The student was enlightened and a bit more educated.

Such events, however, rarely occur because education is a gradual affair that consists of any number of unremembered occasions when a mind was impacted by a teacher or by a class discussion. Education is therefore not a story and so it cannot be told as such. Education is something sui generis. Writers, whether sociologists or novelists, therefore talk around education and use the term as a metaphor for the development of a personality, as in “The Education of Henry Adams”. The “academic novel”, as it is called, attends to the community of scholars or to personal relationships, as in Laurence Lafore’s “Learner’s Permit” or Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” rather than to the substance of education, which is what goes on in classrooms and seminar rooms. The recently non-neglected “Stoner”, by John Williams, finesses the problem of what goes on in classrooms by making the protagonist an academic who has learned, after his first day of class, that he has no gift for conveying his own love of literature, and most of the novel concerns faculty politics and raising his daughter. An exception is Lionel Trilling’s short story “Of This Time, Of That Place” where the author uses a brilliant but crazy student as the foil that allows Trilling to put in the comments that literature professors make, such as saying that there may be multiple correct interpretations of a story or a poem but that there are some interpretations that are clearly incorrect, such as the idea the “The Ancient Mariner” is a poem about how friendly rather than ominous nature can be. So we should be grateful to Tara Westover for what insights she does provide about how education does take place.