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.

“Life is a Whole”

Richard Rodriguez to the 2003 graduating class of Kenyon College:

When I was in graduate school in London there was a man at a dinner party who is the great hero of my reading life. I had read one of his books when I was your age; and there he was forty years later standing across the room. He was of that age in England when hair begins to explode out of all his openings, hair was coming out of his ears and out of his eyes and out of his nose. But I went up to him bravely and I said ‘mister’ (I will not tell you his name) ‘mister, you cannot know how important your book was to me in college, it changed my life’ and he looked down at me and said ‘not a day has past when I have not regretted writing that book’. And I thought to myself, you bastard. To do that to me to say that this book that was so important to you little woggie is of no concern to me. But to do that to yourself, to turn against yourself. The middle aged man turning against the man he was younger is a betrayal of the deepest sort. It is the temptation of every generation, of every season, of every year, of every decade of our lives to turn against ourselves.

When we become middle aged, it is the temptation of the middle aged to say how much we did not know when we were young. It is the temptation of the young not to believe that they will ever be old. Not to believe that your hands will turn into claws from arthritis and that someday you will be in wheelchairs. It is the temptation of all of us to disbelieve that life is a whole, W-H-O-L-E. How’s that for an Oprah idea? I tell you, you are already the father or mother to the men and women that you are going to become in ten, twenty, thirty years. You are already creating that older person. That older person lives with the consequences of what you do, or don’t do, what you know or don’t know now that you are 21.  

My mother and father recently died, my father died first and then my mother inconsolable in his absence died at Christmas. It is one of the things middle aged people talk about, how are your parents, are they still alive. I spent most of January and February in their house on 29th Avenue, a more prosaic street you cannot imagine than 29th Avenue in San Francisco. Afternoons putting into boxes, dishes, photographs, clothes, clothes are the hardest thing to put away. And I found among my mother’s papers, my paper, a paper I had written when I was a high school senior and I opened it and began to read. And it was wonderful. It was wonderful, and it was better than anything that I could achieve now. It was brilliant, it was fresh, it was daring, it risked. It took chances with language. And I think to myself I want to be eighteen again. I want to write like an eighteen year old.  

Dear Oprah.        

Life is a whole. There are things that the young know that the middle aged are envious to remember. There are things that the old know that they learned from childhood.  

Listen to the whole speech here.  (Thanks to Devon Hearn for providing the transcription).

Stealing “Evangelical”

On April 25, 2010, I wrote about writer Richard Rodriguez‘s 2003 address to the graduates of Kenyon College.

Watch it below.  It is short and worth your time:

There is so much to say about this speech.  I get something new out of it every time I watch it.  I watched it again the other day and I was struck by the way he defines the vocation of the writer:

I write books about the political language of our time.  I keep trying to steal the language of our time away from politicians and those talking heads on CNN and Fox. I want language back, into the realm of the writer.  So when the politicians go on about “minorities,” I want to steal the word back.  When the politicians talk about “borders,” I want that word.

This time around I thought about Rodriguez’s words in the context of my own book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am an evangelical Christian. I want to steal the word “evangelical”–the Gospel, the “good news”–back from the pundits, politicians, and talking heads.  Perhaps Believe Me is an attempt to do this.  I need to give this more thought.

The 300 Best Commencement Addresses Ever Delivered

The folks at National Public Radio have chosen 300 addresses going back to 1774.  They include speeches by Al Gore, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anne Lamott, Barack Obama, Barbara Kingsolver, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Billy Jean King, Bobby Knight, Bono, Conan O’Brien, David Brooks, David McCullough Jr, David Foster Wallace, Dwight Eisenhower, Ellen DeGeneres, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fred Rogers, George Plimpton, George W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Hank Aaron, John F. Kennedy, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martha Nussbaum, Meryl Streep, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Jobs, Sting, Susan Sontag, Dr. Seuss, Tim Russert, Tom Hanks, and Will Ferrell.

The following speakers had multiple addresses make the list.  (Only David Brooks had more than two that made the list):

Arianna Huffington (Smith, 2013; Sarah Lawrence, 2011)
Barack Obama (Michigan, 2010; Arizona State, 2009)
Bill Cosby (Carnegie Mellon, 2007; Temple University, 2007)
David Brooks (Wake Forest, 2007, Rice, 2011, Sewanee, 2013)
John F. Kennedy (Yale, 1962; American, 1963)
Kurt Vonnegut (Hobart and William Smith, 1974; Agnes Scott, 1999)
Madeleine Albright (Wellesley, 2007; Harvard, 1997)
Meryl Streep (Barnard, 2010; Vassar, 1983)
Stephen Colbert (Northwestern, 2011; Virginia, 2013)
Susan Sontag (Vassar, 2003; Wellesley, 1983)
Wynton Marsalis (Connecticut College, 2001, Vermont, 2013)

NPR missed this one:

Richard Rodriguez on Religion, Politics, and Newspapers

Since I first read Hunger of Memory about ten years ago, Richard Rodriguez has been a formative influence on my thinking.  When most people think about this book they think about Rodriguez’s opposition to affirmative action and bilingual education.  These are strong arguments and I hope you will read Hunger of Memory and consider them. But I found this book so important because it told the story of a first-generation college student and how that student struggled to live the tension between his roots and his ambitions.  I would even go as far to say that some of these ideas informed my work in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.


Rodriguez’s latest book, his first since 2002, is Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.  I can’t wait to read it.  My anticipation has been enhanced by Scott Timberg’s interview with Rodriguez at Salon. Here is a taste:
For admirers of your writing it has been a tough dozen years or so. This is your first book since 2002, I think. Besides writing for Harper’s and recovering from cancer, what else have you been up to?
Well, partly I’ve been brooding and partly I’ve been angry. I stopped writing for the L.A. Times because the L.A. Times stopped asking me to write for them; I stopped writing for the “News Hour” because the “News Hour” decided to have a web page at the end of their program instead of having essays. Nothing happened to me; the world changed. Steve Jobs became the controlling figure of our time. And in some way, you know, what I’m more and more of the opinion of is that the kind of writing that I want to do is really going to be able to be read by fewer and fewer people now. And I’m reconciled to that.
I’m very lucky that I’m still able to publish books. But you know I know what it’s like to publish a book, and go to a book reading and there are five people there and three of those people are friends of yours that you’ve asked to come. So I don’t think people are reading anymore. I think they’re using language a great deal, but not in any kind of deep or meditative sense. It’s all of this chatter of communication. I don’t know what this neurosis is that has taken over our societies, particularly the United States, but not only the United States. These kids walking down streets checking their messages every few minutes. What that neurosis is, what it is going to mean for serious communication I cannot guess.
Until you went on that jag a minute ago, I was wondering why you had a chapter in a book about religion, to call it a spiritual autobiography, about the fading of newspapers; now I have a sense of why that piece fits in there.
You know one of the things about that piece that I think readers might ignore, it ends with a discussion about the death of American cemeteries. Fewer and fewer people are being buried. More and more of my friends now are being cremated and their ashes, I don’t know where their ashes are anymore. They’re somewhere in Idaho, they’re somewhere on Muir Woods in someplace. That revolution, which I think is related to the fact that we don’t want to live on the earth anymore that there is an anxiety about being here, about being in this place at the same time that the cultural left has come up with this idea of green nature. We all have to become green. Well, nature is primarily brown in the world, you know, and the lessons of nature lead to nature, they don’t lead to this perennial spring.
Or to say it another way, you cannot have spring without winter. That this sentimentality about our lives where people are not buried. So a good friend of mine died; he asked two women friends of his to take his ashes, we know not where. And another friend of mine calls up and says, “I’d love to go see. I’d love to pay my respects, I couldn’t come to the funeral, could I go to the cemetery?” I say, well I have no idea where he is. The death of the newspaper is being told in the cemetery, in the fact that we are not writing obituaries, many of my friends have died without obituaries, because it’s no longer a civic event to die — it’s a private event. You understand? And so, you know, that fact that the newspaper was the receptacle not simply of news of our birth, but of our death, that fact is really the reason why an obituary for a newspaper becomes in the last several pages an obituary for a cemetery.
In the simplest way, the failure of the newspaper marks the end of a sense of place. Newspapers and cities, newspapers and a sense of place have been tied up quite intimately for a long time. They’re both fading at about the same time too.
That’s right. We’re living in the America of placeless-ness and increasingly I think of, that’s why you have people walking down the street quite unconcerned with where they are, or who’s walking towards them or who is behind them. They are in their own place, and they have their own sound, their own entertainment, and they have their own text messages and they’re quite content to live in their own little cocoon.
Right. And there are a lot of elements to this. The scene you just described they’re probably walking through a cityscape that could be almost any city in at least the Western world. So we have kind of electronic communication coming together with maybe cultural narcissism with kind of chain store Wal-Marting process, right? The bookstore has been blown out by the web or by Amazon.
And the little coffee shop has become a Starbucks. And everything is institutionalized. That’s true. But, you see, I think it’s more possible to learn in an institutionalized world if you are disconnected, if you’re not breathing, if you’re walking down the street without putting your eyes on the landscape. I think that that’s what so troubles me.
That people are not, it’s not so much that they’re not experiencing the city they’re living in, but they’re not even experiencing their bodies. I go to an Animal Gym in San Francisco and it’s a gay gym, all these guys, these steroid-ed wonders, wander about. And you would think that between sets they would flirt with each other visually, or they would admire each other, but in fact what they do is they pull out their cell phones and look at their messages. I don’t understand what’s going on; I don’t understand how you could be there developing that body and then turn yourself into a text message, you know?
It’s that sort of movement away from body that is really, really troubling. I understand why and I credit some way, you pull out a cell phone and watch a few old episodes of “The Simpsons” because you don’t want to smell the guy sitting next to you. But I also don’t understand it. If you’re in a subway that’s crowded there’s always somebody to look at, there’s always something to see. There’s always something to smell and that’s what we’re not experiencing anymore; we’re not living in our bodies. That’s why we’re not dying in cemeteries, that’s why were not reading the newspaper. That’s why we think that nature is green.
These evasions of place, that theme runs through these chapters. And in some sense what I’m arguing is that the dream in the desert, which was always for the time before the fall, green Eden before Adam and Eve were sent out to the desert, or for the time after our death where we will be in a heaven that is green. That dream is still very much alive in the secular imagination, and when Oprah Winfrey and Bono go on TV to tell us all about the green and they get on their private jets and go on to another location, to tell those people to be green. What we’re watching is a secular dream of Eden. So many of my friends tell me they’re not religious. I’m like, Of course you’re religious. You watch Oprah Winfrey, don’t you?

Richard Rodriguez on the Wholeness of Life

Richard Rodriguez to the Class of 2003 at Kenyon College:

There was so much I didn’t know at 21. But maybe most of all what I didn’t know when I was 21 was how much I did know. Because when I became a writer in my 30s, I began writing about the years of my schooling. The first sentence of the first book I ever wrote was about going to a classroom, a Spanish-speaking child in Sacramento, California, and about to confront a group of Irish nuns. I have been writing about education ever since. I have been writing about the years of grammar school, high school, adolescence, young adulthood. I have been looking through those memories of school because somewhere within those memories is some part of the man I became.

…When I was in graduate school in London there was a man at a dinner party who was the great hero of my reading life. I had read one of his books when I was your age and there he was, forty years later, standing across the room. He was of that age in England when hair begins to explode out of all of his openings. Hair was coming out of his ears and out of his eyes and out of his nose. But I went up to him bravely and I said “Mr (I will not tell you his name) you cannot know how important your book was to me in college, it changed my life.” And he looked down at me and said, “not a day has passed when I have not regretted writing that book.” And I thought to myself, “You Bastard.” To do that to me–to say “that this book that was so important to you… is of no concern to me”–[is one thing]. But to do that to yourself, to turn against yourself–the middle aged man turning against the man he was when he was younger–is a betrayal of the deepest sort.

It is the temptation of every generation, of every season, of every year, of every decade in our lives to turn against ourselves. When we become middle age it is the temptation of the middle age to say how much we did not know when we were young. It is the temptation of the young not to believe that they will ever be old. Not to believe that your hands will turn into claws from arthritis and that some day you will be in wheelchairs. It is the temptation of all us not to believe that life is a whole…

I tell you that you are already father or mother to the men and women that you are going to become in ten, twenty, thirty years. You are already creating that older person. That older person lives with the consequences of what you do or don’t do. What you know or don’t know, now that you are 21.

Richard Rodriguez at Kenyon College

Richard Rodriguez is one of my favorite writers. I know his views on Affirmative Action and bilingual education are controversial, but these are not the reasons why I like him. (Although I do think he gives us a lot to think about on both of these issues). I have been a Richard Rodriguez fan ever since I read Hunger of Memory. This book put into words what I have always felt as a first-generation college student from a lower-middle class background–the exhilaration of learning and ambition and the sense of loss that comes with it. His chapter on Roman Catholicism is one of the best pieces of religious writing I have ever read. Since I assign this book in my Immigrant America course, I have had the privilege of reading it many times. We are currently in the midst of discussing it in that class.

I recently learned, thanks to John Wilson at Books and Culture, that Rodriguez spoke at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing. I hope that his talk might appear on-line at some point.

If you are a Rodriguez fan and could not be at Calvin College last week, I would encourage you to listen to this 2003 commencement address that he delivered at Kenyon College in Ohio. It is outstanding and inspirational. It is only about 20 minutes long.