Educated: A Conversation with Tara Westover
Raised by uncompromising survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover survived extreme adversity, from never being allowed to go to school, to suffering serious physical injuries (and a dad that prohibited doctors or hospitals), to being at the mercy of a volatile and often abusive older brother. How did she not only make it through this childhood, but ultimately achieve success at the highest levels? How does she look back on her childhood and her family? What has she learned from her incredible and improbable journey?
Author Tara Westover’s life has been anything but normal, and her autobiography Educated shows that in spades. What lessons can the everyday reader, who probably grew up going to doctors and not working in a junkyard, take from such an extraordinary story? Westover explains how she hopes readers see themselves in her place:
“If someone reads the book and sees their father instead of my father… I’m OK with that,” says Westover. Westover wants Educated to be a filter that allows people to see her experiences as their own.
“It’s an old curse: May you have a writer in the family,” says interviewer and editor of The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg. Even as Tara Westover is thousands of miles away from her childhood home in Idaho, her family still remains front and center of her story in Educated. Westover talks about how she became comfortable writing about her family, the good and the bad:
Education, and especially higher education, has become a cultural statement. A college degree has immense financial payoffs, but some are loathe to wade into a culture that often looks down on those outside of it. Jeffrey Goldberg and Tara Westover discuss how to make the idea of higher education palatable to all Americans:
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity
Jeffrey Goldberg: How do you suggest the value of cosmopolitan education, enlightened education, whatever you want to call it, to people who are afraid of what the downstream effects might be?
Tara Westover: I think you have to take the condescension out of it. We have allowed education to become an identity, almost. We’ve allowed it to be something that some people get a lot of access to, and that a certain kind of person gets, and a certain kind of person doesn’t get. In a lot of cases, we have allowed our education to putrefy into arrogance. Education should change you, it should absolutely change you. Most parents, even if they knew it might cause some change to their kid but it would also open up a world to them, would choose education — even rural people. But I think when you add that contempt into it, that’s when it becomes a different animal. And I don’t necessarily blame them for not wanting their kids to become contemptuous of them.
The first time Tara Westover heard opera, it changed her life. Opera has to be taught in a formal, regimented way, and it made Westover realize the value of education that didn’t come from her parents. Music is what motivated her to go to college, and music is still a grounding force in her life. Take a minute, put some headphones on, and listen to her singing voice: