She Persisted

‘Educated’, an Education in Education, Mostly for the Uneducated

I read Educated, by Tara Westover. Why did I read this book? It was on the lists, and sometimes I like to read what’s on the lists. Also, it finally popped up in my library queue, where it had been sitting for months. Because this book isn’t just on the lists. It’s a publishing phenomenon, which just shows that you can’t predict what will end up on the lists, unless it’s by James Patterson.

Educated tells the story of a young woman who grows up in rural Idaho, the daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic fundamentalist Mormon doomsday prepper who runs a junkyard. His wife owns a successful herbal-remedy business. They have lots of kids, and they all have many problems. Tara’s parents refuse to send her to school. Instead, she endures a childhood so full of violence and trauma that Charles Dickens couldn’t possibly have imagined anything so terrible. David Copperfield seems like Barron Trump by comparison.

By sheer force of will and some kind of innate genius, Westover ends up acing the ACT test at age 17 and finds herself at Brigham Young University, where she smells bad and her roommates hate her. Then she goes to Cambridge and Harvard and then Cambridge again. Meanwhile, she keeps returning home to Idaho, where she endures more violence, trauma, and ignorance. This isn’t The Book Of Mormon on Broadway. It’s more like the Juniper Creek scenes of Big Love, but way worse.

Out Of Idaho

This book, written with urgency and force, seems destined. It contains all the rural quaintness of Little House On The Prairie combined with all the dread of The Stand or Dante’s Inferno. Every chapter retells a horrible thresher accident, dental emergency, or harrowing scene of domestic abuse. One woman perseveres against, and triumphs over, incredible odds. Audiences around the world weep, as they have since the birth of the novel.

Educated crafts a classically-structured sympathetic narrative. If you root against the protagonist, you’re a monster. People used to love Horatio Alger stories where the hero rose up from poverty and achieved great things by dint of hard work. This narrative follows a similar arc. It’s a feminist Ragged Dick, except that the reward isn’t financial gain, but self-knowledge. In Westover’s formula, education sets us free from our trauma and helps relieve us of the burden of our pasts.

But for a book about education, it does a poor job of educating us. Our heroine  triumphs by getting her Ph.D. That happens quickly, at the end of the book. The learning barely comes across. You can barely sense the knowledge through all the pain.

By George She’s Got It!

Westover mentions the British philosophers she studied in college, but doesn’t spend a whole lot of time telling us about what they philosophized. I pulled out a few useful tidbits from her time at Cambridge. Burke was a monarchist, and the authors of the Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison and Jay) wrote under the pseudonym “Pubilus.” Her condescending professor compares her with Eliza Dolittle, but we never really see her say “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

 

As her mind expands, so does her prose. She quotes John Stuart Mill: “of the nature of women, nothing final can be known.” Westover writes, “Mill claimed that women have been coaxed, cajoled, shoved and squashed into a series of feminine contortions for so many centuries, that it is now quite impossible to define their natural abilities or aspirations.”

That’s the book’s most interesting paragraph. But then Westover follows it with a scene of such ludicrous family melodrama that it might as well appear on The Bold And The Beautiful. Knowledge quickly transmutes into lurid gossip.

When Tara goes off to college, she’s never heard of the Holocaust, and doesn’t know the word “biology.” She thinks Napoleon is a fictional character, and that Europe is a country. Horrifying! More terribly, and more memorably, she refuses to wash with soap and she rejects a big scholarship because her dad taught her not to trust the government. Ten years and many agonized diary entries later, she holds a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge.

Who writes history?” she says in italics. “I do.

They say history is written by the victors. With this book, a tale of feminist triumph and a three-hanky weeper that purports to appeal to our better natures, Westover has definitely won all the marbles. Maybe it will inspire a new generation of women and men to pursue scholarship and knowledge, to banish ignorance from this world once and for all. I have doubts.

For a book about education, Educated contains mostly personal stories and classical morality plays. I learned little, other than Westover’s admittedly compelling story and a few disputable facts about the Ruby Ridge standoff. We may like reading about other people’s educations, especially if they come packaged in a searing tale of terrible domestic abuse. But that’s no substitute for our own.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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