I was the kid who loved school. I never tired of learning, I always had my nose in book, I came from a family who valued education very highly, and more importantly I myself understood the power of knowledge. I often take all of this for granted, as I’m sure do most people who dragged their feet through the public system.
Like school or not, all those that did it can recognize that our lives were shaped by it, and probably would have been nonexistent without it. Imagining a life from age 6 to 17 (or 22 or older if you continued to higher education) without school is like trying to imagine an alien — you may have an idea of what it would look like, but you have no real experience to base it off of and even if you did your image would be far from the truth.
Enter Tara Westover, the general public’s glimpse into a life of isolation, fear, irrationally, and love despite all that. Educated is Westover’s 2018 memoir recounting the tale of how she went from living with her anti-establishment, survivalist family in rural Idaho, never having step foot in a class room, to eventually earning her PhD from Cambridge University.
Westover appeared in conversation with Bill Gates at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival to promote Netflix’s new documentary series Inside Bill’s Brain, premiering on September 20th.
Westover provides an in-depth look at her strange family, which includes her religious zealot father and her herbalist, midwife mother. Westover has 5 siblings, all of whom grew up in the same manor that she did, all with varying outcomes. They had no birth certificates, never went to doctors or hospitals, and never went to public school. They were all homeschooled out of the same 3 old textbooks. They spent their days playing on the mountain, helping their father run his junkyard, and prepping for the End of the World, whenever that may come.
All was right in Tara’s world, until one day she realizes it’s not, and that if she wants to escape the life her family had written for her she must escape and venture into an unknown world, and become educated.
Now, this all sounds a bit more dramatic than it really turned out to be, but I still had a good time reading it. This is a delightful read that is at times shocking, inspiring, depressing, and warm, just as a good memoir should be. It never stays in one emotion for too long, and I found Westover’s writing to be an absolute breeze. Though this book runs a little on the long side (350+ pages in my hardcover version), it never feels like it’s dragging because Westover has such a natural pace to her sentences.
However, while I didn’t have a particularly difficult time getting through the narrative, I did feel that I was a little misdirected when I picked up the book, and that made for some confusion along the way.
The fact is, this book is much more about her relationship with her family, especially her father, than it is about her education. I wouldn’t call this a criticism, but personally I was thrown off because I didn’t expect that to be the focus on the book. We spend much more time on that mountain in Idaho than we do in the classrooms, and personally I would have much preferred it the other way around.
I think this is a fine read, but admittedly not the 5 star memoir I thought I was getting into. It’s a true 3.5 book for me — it’s not bad for what it is, but not great for what it could be.
I’ll try my best to explain without spoilers: I went into this book with CRAZY high expectations, I heard about it absolutely everywhere. I could not escape it. Miley Cyrus was reading this book. I was so curious I paid full price hardcover for this thing. So perhaps I’m judging it a little unfairly due to high expectations (and hence why I think it deserves a 3.5, not a 3), but also because it wasn’t really what I thought it was going to be. It’s not fair to rate a book lower because it wasn’t what I personally wanted it to be, but at the same time, I feel like I’m justified in my wanting.
I WANTED this book to be all about Tara’s struggle to understand what education is at its core, to recount her confusion and frustration at deciphering school and “regular” life (something most of us take for granted). I wanted to deeply understand how it was possible for a 17 year old with no schooling for an entire childhood to end up with a PhD from Cambridge University. I wanted to understand how a mind is reshaped when it was so terribly misshapen in the first place. I wanted to understand what it was like to have to grapple with shifting foundations of life and truth, especially when & if it means being exiled from your family and the only home you’ve ever known.
That’s what I thought this book would be, but that’s not what this book is.
More than anything, this is a detailed account of Tara’s bizarre and interesting childhood, which is entertaining for sure. However, I didn’t realize just how much of this book would be about her past, rather than her present self. Maybe it was my fault for making assumptions about what the book should be, and it is labeled a “memoir” and that usually means a lot about the person’s past, but I felt like Tara spent far too much time talking about the life she came from. I know we need detail for context, but I thought that more of the focus should have been on her path to education, her feelings and actions during that time in her life, rather than devote so many of the pages to her life before. I’m not saying none of it should have been there, just a bit less. I was much more interested in the actual process of her becoming educated, but when we do finally get there more than halfway through the book, she skips through most of the schooling, which I found really strange because she’d gone into so much detail in other places.
It’s not like these were not enjoyable to read (I actually found them quite nice, her writing style is so easy to get lost in). Don’t get me wrong, it was endlessly fascinating to read about the rules and beliefs of this family that were so foreign to me, but on the whole I feel like this book just missed the point of itself. I wish Westover would have spent more time in that psychological headspace of trying to unlearn the only things she’s ever known, while trying to catch up on years worth of knowledge she never knew.
But again, this book was a massive success, earning 5 stars after 5 stars from people, so maybe a lot of people loved all the detail about her survivalist life and crazy family and that’s what made them love it.
For me, it was too long in the places I didn’t care about and much to brief in the places I did. It wasn’t what I expected it to be. But for what it is, it’s a fine piece about an interesting if terribly misguided family.
I think there’s a lot of value in this book. It touches on the points I wanted it to touch on, but I would have liked it to go a bit deeper on them. Even after finishing the book, I still have many logistical questions about how Westover actually managed to earn those degrees (I’m not doubting her or anything, I just wish she would have spent more time talking about what she actually did in school). I had no trouble getting through it, and I do feel I have gone on a journey with Tara Westover over the course of the book, and changed because of it. That is all I ever truly want out of a book, so for that I can completely understand its praise.
Educated is available now.