When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

Introducing "Reckless Historians"

Whenever I teach The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I spend some time talking about The Junto–Franklin’s club for mutual improvement.  Here is how Franklin describes the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

Several years ago I suggested that we need more Junto’s in our colleges and universities. Here is part of what I wrote in that post:

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one’s time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the “application” by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to “continue the discussions in their Juntos.” The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today’s students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I know of several groups of students who have formed Juntos after reading the Autobiography.  During my first several years at Messiah College, a group of students met weekly in the college snack shop.  Another group of students at Northwestern College formed a Junto that read, among other works, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  And over the years a few more Juntos were created by Messiah history majors.

The latest Junto is made up of a group of sophomore history majors at Messiah College.  They call themselves “Reckless Historians” and have created a blog by the same name.  If you are an undergraduate historian, a history major, or simply someone with a passion for learning more about the past, I would encourage you to check them out.