Knowledge and Understanding: "Educated" Author Tara Westover Visits Taft

New York Times best-selling author Tara Westover visited Taft this week to talk about how her experiences with education—both formal and informal—have shaped her personal philosophies. Raised in Idaho to Mormon, survivalist parents who were anti-government, anti-school, and anti-medicine, Westover never set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old. That first experience was fraught with confusion and revelation—about how little she knew of the world, and of how much her father’s mental illness had shaped both his life and her existence. 

Westover ultimately graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008, and was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014. She told her story in the 2018 book, Educated: A Memoir, and shared the following thoughts on education during Taft’s Morning Meeting and subsequent Q & A sessions.

Things I gained from my education:

1.         In a lot of ways, the world is a construct that was made for us by other people. 

“The world that we perceive, the stories that we know about the past, none of us were there: everything we know about the past was told to us by other people. That was extreme in my case, but I think it is true for everyone. In one of my first lectures at Brigham Young, I raised my hand and asked what the Holocaust was, because I didn’t know. When I learned about it, I felt the world shift a bit. The first shock was learning about the event. The second shock was learning that it is, in fact, possible for everybody else to know something and be walking around aware of something that you don’t perceive at all. Every story we know about the past, everything we know about the world, a lot of it is curated for us by the people around us. I think in that sense, if you passively consume information and you don’t seek out new types of information you are, in a very real sense, allowing other people to create your world for you. I think the alternative is to actively seek out different narratives, different stories than the ones that are placed in front of you. It is difficult; it is a process that requires effort. I happen to think that it’s the only way that we can, in any meaningful sense participate in the making of our own minds.”

2.         Ignorance can make us foot soldiers for unworthy causes. 

“When I returned home after first semester of college and was working in my father’s junkyard, I became aware of a word that my family had always used that I was not aware of at all—it is a slur that I will not repeat. I had never encountered that word, and did not know what it meant; maybe I knew what it meant technically, but I had no understandingof what it meant. And the reason I had no idea of what it meant again has to do with stories, and the version of history that had been presented to me by my family, which had not included a huge chunk of the American story. I had never heard of the Civil Rights Movement. Learning about the Civil Rights Movement would really change the way I would perceive not just my family, but also myself and the role I was playing…Sometimes the stories that reach us—even in a mainstream, even if you do go to school—in some ways can be curated for you…I had to go to a classroom to understand different stories of our family’s role in history, of the effect we were having on people around us that we were ignorant of. The only way to stop was to recognize the role we were playing by engaging in these alternate histories.”

3.         You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them. 

Before taking Psych 101 in my junior year, I had never thought about what it meant to be sane. What did it mean to be insane? In my mind there were two categories, you were either completely rational or completely irrational. I didn’t realize it was possible to be functional and for there still to be something wrong. This had a pretty big impact on the way I interpreted my childhood… It wasn’t until I took the Psych 101 class that I had any abstract capacity to understand that there can be a difference between the intentions that people have and the effects that they have…Getting that abstract understanding of what mental illness is, the diversity of disorders, and the ways it manifests gave me an understanding of the difference of intention and effect. It was understanding that difference that eventually gave me the conviction to say goodbye. I had this idea that love can be real, but maybe it is not the only factor, or maybe it is not enough… Whatever happens to it, love seems to live on. But loving or not, love is just love. It doesn’t change people. It doesn’t give you the power to change people, and it doesn’t give you control over the universe; it doesn’t give you the power to control how the story unfolds, or to keep bad things from happening. Sometimes all that can be said for love really is that it persists. What I would discover in the end is that love might be the thing that you take with you when you go.” 

Observations about what I think education is: 

1.         An education is not the same thing as a school.

“You’re sitting in a school, you’re not sitting in an education. Education is a lot of different things to different people. By my definition, education is an individual’s pursuit of understanding. A school is the mechanism we use to try to achieve that… It is important to maintain that distinction in your mind: if you confuse them, you will be limiting yourself to the most passive, general, and institutionalized aspects of learning. In my opinion, the best parts of learning are the active, and the individualized, and the specific.”

2.         An education is not job training. 

There are a lot of economic changes taking place—global changes, economic changes, advances in technology. In a lot of ways, I think we have tasked the education system with solving these huge problems. In most cases they are not pedagogical problems, they are social problems, they are economic problems, they are political problems. I worry that the more we task education with solving these problems that are educational in nature, the more we risk reducing education to something more like job training. If we do that, we run the risk of preserving in the system is all those things that are of benefit to employers that make people a better employee, and what we risk losing are all of those things—art, culture, literature, philosophy—that make the individual fit to live a better life. So what we keep are the things that make a person of use to someone else, what we lose are those things that make a person of use to themselves.”

3.         Education is a privilege and it needs to be regarded as such.

“We’re living through a pretty intense period of political polarization. In a lot of ways, education has become a mechanism of this—it has become something that separates the one tribe from the other. I don’t know how to fix that, but I’m convinced that the answer has to lie in humility…Education doesn’t necessarily inoculate you from bias, sometimes it just makes you better at arguing your biases. So move forward, become educated, but don’t allow your education to putrefy into arrogance, and never let your education be a stick that you use to beat other people into submission. If you are more interested in winning an argument than in understanding the person you are arguing with, you’ve done it wrong. If you’re someone who has all of the answers and none of the questions, you’ve done it wrong. Increasingly I am convinced that no education can be called ‘good’ if it doesn’t include some element of empathy, of trying to understand people who are different from you—who look different from you, who believe different things that you believe. I think we have to teach ourselves this kind of charity; that it is only by teaching ourselves this particular kind of charity that we will in some way be bound together not just by knowledge but by understanding.”