Educated is the emotional and thought-provoking memoir of a young woman who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Tara Westover’s family was physically abusive, emotionally abusive, and verbally abusive. This makes her memoir a poignant and inspiring story about a girl who fought her way out of the backwoods to Harvard.
In many ways, Tara’s story parallels J. D. Vance’s story in Hillbilly Elegy, a similar modern rags to educational riches story. But in a fundamental way, Tara’s story differs from Vance’s. These two young authors’ interpretations and take-aways of the dysfunction they grew up with differs dramatically. Tara fixates on homeschooling as a fundamental problem in her childhood, whereas Vance admits his problem was an unstable family life.
You see it in the title. Tara sees her fundamental triumph as overcoming her educationally neglectful background. Educated is peppered with comments along the lines of “I never knew about the Holocaust- because I was homeschooled.” With typical liberal distaste, she dismisses homeschooling as a poor education.
The notion that homeschooling is an inferior education has been so thoroughly debunked Tara’s blanket dismissal is almost laughable. Really, the only question up for debate is whether homeschooling provides an equal or better education to public school. The only way I can explain her disdain for a well-respected method of education is to believe she is projecting her own experience onto the many, many thousands of homeschooling families in America.
Homeschooled or not Schooled
From Tara’s account, her family did not engage in much formal education. You might better say she was not schooled than home schooled. Yet she self-admittedly had high reading comprehension skills and enough education to prepare for and pass the ACT’s with minimal help from an older sibling.
Would it have been better for her parents to provide her with a more structured and aided educational experience? Definitely. But is a public school style, teacher-directed education actually necessary for educational success? Tara herself, about half of her other siblings, and many other famous homeschoolers such as Abraham Lincoln show that learning, and the thirst for more learning, can be awakened in a variety of ways.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say Tara’s non-traditional education was a large part of the reason she did succeed academically. Assuming she had been in a typical public school, most likely she wouldn’t have had such an impressive higher education trajectory. Would a typical public school education have given her such an uncommon interior drive and thirst for education? Maybe, but maybe not. And what caught her instructors’ interest? That she was different because she had been homeschooled. Would they have pulled strings, finding her scholarships and study abroad opportunities, if she had been exactly like everyone else? Probably not.
Hillbilly Elegy Life Lessons
J. D. Vance’s memoir is a fascinating counterpoint to Tara’s. Vance came from a comparable abusive background, but spent his years in public school. Does he credit public school with any of his success? Nope. In fact, he repeatedly emphasizes that he struggled academically despite having every possible opportunity for success at school. What does Vance say made the difference and turned around his downward academic trajectory? It was when he finally moved in permanently with his grandmother in high school and entered a stable living situation for the first time in his life. For Vance, having stable relationships and peace at home were key to academic success.
You can see how Vance’s thoughts apply to Tara’s situation. He might say that her fundamental problem was not that she grew up homeschooled, but that she lived with an abusive, mentally unstable family. Vance would say that like himself, Tara wouldn’t have thrived academically in the public school system either. Her academic success began when she began to put physical and emotional distance between herself and her family.
Is Tara’s story inspiring? Absolutely. But is her portrayal of homeschooling problematic for the average American reader? Yes. I would almost call this book anti-homeschool propaganda, except for the raw pain that bleeds out of Tara’s words, showing her very real wounds. This poor young woman is still reeling from a terrible childhood. Fixating on homeschooling as the problem and education as the solution may help her not focus on the real problem in her life: an abusive family that she struggles to come to terms with. It’s just a shame that she is choosing to vilify homeschooling. I hope that such an intelligent person as Tara will eventually process and accept that her own experience of homeschooling (or not schooling at all) is far from a typical American homeschooling experience.
Should you read Educated?
Be warned: Educated has quite a bit of domestic abuse and violence. Tara’s abuse from her older brother is particularly painful to read. If you can get past the violence and anti-homeschooling theme, then it is a well-written memoir about a young girl’s self transformation and will to survive. Alternatively, check out Hillbilly Elegy for a thought-provoking story sans the anti-homeschooling themes. (Note that Hillbilly Elegy is heavy on language.) Both these memoirs are absorbing and popular recent books: great for book club discussion or personal reading and reflection.
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