Education: An Overtly Underestimated Weapon

Education is an eminently underestimated weapon. Reflecting on my personal schooling experience, I am a tad ashamed at the thought of my complaining over an impending essay or exam. I lament the two classes I skipped in college (even more so after dividing my annual tuition by the number of classes held in those two semesters). Moreover, I have qualms over not completely indulging in all that my education provided. That is, while I graduated at the top of my class in both high school and college, I did not appreciate my education as much as I do now, especially as I ruminate over the way in which I robotically completed assignments as quickly as I could, while also providing the professor with exactly what I knew he or she would merit the widely sought-after “A”. Oftentimes, students find themselves overloaded with coursework and overly-regimented schedules, much so that our success depends on our ability to take the smartest shortcut, which will in turn guarantee us the highest mark. I recall immense Google Docs that minced textbooks into sections. Each individual in the class was assigned to outlining a specific chapter. As opposed to reading the entire textbook and taking away our own lessons and forming personal perspectives, we only took away first-hand lessons from a minute portion of the book, and memorized others’ takeaways from the majority. This shortcut guaranteed us more sleep, social time, and freedom to bypass other lengthy assignments, while also promising a decent grade. Nonetheless, these not-so-underground-strategies deprived us of the true purpose behind any education.

Immediately after entering the workforce, I missed school. The classic phrase, “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side” definitely held true. While the company I work for may be one of the most innovative, dynamic and progressive in the world, I still felt the tasks to be mundane at times, and recurrently found myself perplexed as to how individuals could possibly grow so afflicted over what seemed to me, very trivial topics. That is, while my colleagues grew frustrated or lost sleep over certain deliverables (a term I learned quickly upon entering the ‘real world’) I thought back to my Political Science class, where I studied nuclear wars, mass-genocide, the status of women in the Middle East, and other seemingly more pressing topics.

As I grew more cognizant of my innate longing to be back in University, I began to look into graduate programs, in which I would be bestowed a second chance to immerse myself in readings and essays about what I now recognized as incredibly important topics to me (this all sounds immensely cliché, I’m aware). As if there weren’t enough triteness in the world, one evening, as though the Universe were playing a cruel joke on me, I am Malala grabbed my eye, while it sat amidst a cluster of other novels on my bookshelf. I zipped through the text, finishing it during my family vacation in the Czech Republic. For those of you who don’t know Malala’s story, she is a Pakistani advocate for girls’ education, and was shot by the Taliban on her way to school simply for seeking that incredibly basic, yet overtly disputed, human right. I remember flipping through the gory photos of her school bus, where the shooting had occurred, en route to a family dinner in Prague. The controversy around women and education in other parts of the world, and the sheer sentiment that a man would go to such lengths merely to prevent a woman from knowledge of a world outside of the only one she recognizes, underscored the truth behind the efficacy of education. Education is power, thus any educated woman is powerful.

This sheer fact was accentuated throughout Tara Westover’s propulsive memoir, Educated. Westover was seventeen when she first set foot in a classroom. She was born into a family of survivalists in the mountains of Idaho. Her mother worked as a midwife and healer, using only herbs as medicine as they were forbidden from hospitals, while her father worked in a junkyard, preparing for the day in which his family underwent a ‘siege’ by the government (which he believed to be an evil force). Tara began to notice that certain things were awry when they went through a horrid car accident. Her mother, sitting in the passenger seat at the time, maintained severe migraines for years, which Westover later learned to be signals of an acute head injury. Nonetheless, her father professed that her mother would not be brought to the hospital (an evil place); she was in God’s hands. Shortly thereafter, Tara’s brother Shawn’s violent behavior worsened, as he choked Tara, held her head over the toilet threatening to drown her, alongside countless other actions which ultimately led Westover to attach a deadbolt to her bedroom door. Tara vividly recounts, “I awoke with needles in my brain. Thousands of them, biting, blocking out everything. Then they disappeared for one dizzying moment and I got my bearings. It was morning, early; amber sunlight poured in through my bedroom window. I was standing but not on my own strength. Two hands were gripping my throat and they’d been shaking me. The needles, that was my brain crashing into my skull. I had only a few seconds to wonder why before the needles returned, shredding my thoughts. My eyes were open but I saw only white flashes. A few sounds made it through me. ‘SLUT!’ ‘WHORE!’ Then another sounds. Mother. She was crying. ‘Stop! You’re killing her! Stop!’ She must have grabbed him because I felt his body twist. I feel to the floor. When I opened my eyes, Mother and Shawn were facing each other, Mother wearing only a tattered bathrobe.”

Westover’s ability to imagine a world outside of the only one she knew, and seek opportunities beyond those that she had been provided, despite the violence and estrangement from her family that she knew would ensue, is arguably the most striking aspect of her entire account. The hope for a life beyond the one Westover lived first-hard stemmed from the few siblings of hers that announced that they would be attending University, and left their family home shortly thereafter. Tara also noticed a change in her mother upon taking part in opportunities outside of the house to which they were constricted. She writes, “Midwifing changed my mother. She was a grown woman with seven children, but this was the first time in her life that she was, without question or caveat, the one in charge. Sometimes, in the days after a birth, I detected in her something of Judy’s heavy presence, in a forceful turn of her head, or the imperious arch of each eyebrow. She stopped wearing makeup, then she stopped apologizing for not wearing it.” While Westover’s father did not believe that women should work, her mother represents yet another emblem of the women in her memoir, aside from herself, who direly sought a life beyond the one that they had been habituated.  

Westover began to participate in activities that exposed her to a world outside of her own. When she explored dance, the hobby was rapidly ixnayed by her father, who claimed, “By calling it ‘dance,’ he had convinced good Mormons to accept the sight of their daughters jumping about like whores in the Lord’s house. That fact offended Dad more than anything else: that such a lewd display had taken place in church.” As time went on, Westover grew increasingly aware of these double-standards that her father imposed on the women in her house and the surrounding world. After her father makes disdainful remarks referencing the hemline of a skirt another woman had worn that day, alongside another woman’s low-cut blouse, Westover writes, “The neckline was only an inch below her collarbone, but it was loose-fitting, and I imagined that if she bent it would give a full view. As I thought this I felt anxious, because although a tighter blouse would have made Jeanette’s bending more modest, the tightness itself would have been less modest.” Satirically, she continues, “Righteous women do not wear tight clothing. Other women do that.” Her father wasn’t isolated in this way of thinking. Westover recounts, “The first time I wore lip gloss, Shawn said I was a whore.”

As Westover began to follow in the footsteps of her abhorred siblings by following the motions necessary to apply to University, she received the backlash that she had expected. Westover writes, “When I’d told Dad that I planned to go to college, he’d said a woman’s place was in the home, that I should be learning about herbs – ‘God’s pharmacy’ he’d called it, smiling to himself so I could take over for Mother. He’d said a lot more, of course, about how I was whoring after man’s knowledge instead of God’s, but still I decided to ask him about trigonometry. Here was a sliver of man’s knowledge I was certain he possessed.” When Tara finally sits for the ACT, the dichotomy between her world and that of the other students is apparent through the strangeness of the “bubble sheet” and the rippling noise of pencils and paper in the testing room. Upon finishing her test, she reflects, “I drove home. I felt stupid, but more than stupid I felt ridiculous. Now that I’d seen the other students – watched them march into the classroom in neat rows, claim their seats and calmly fill their answers, as if they were performing a practiced routine – it seemed absurd that I had thought I could score in the top fifteen percent. That was their world. I stepped into overalls and returned to mine.”

Westover ultimately enrolls in BYU, much to the majority of her family’s dismay. After an astonishingly successful schoolyear, Westover returns to her home in Idaho for the summer, and is given the ultimatum between returning to work in the treacherous family junkyard, or finding another place to live. She reluctantly chooses the former, finding herself, yet again, in the perilous junkyard. She writes, “After a month in the junkyard, BYU seemed like a dream, something I’d conjured. Now I was awake.” While she grows more aware of the sheer disunion of these two worlds, that dream and her then reality, she writes, “I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize other – because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward. I could not have articulated this, not as I sweated through those searing afternoons in the forklift. I did not have the language I have now. But I understood this one fact: that a thousand times I had been called Nigger, and laughed, and now I could not laugh. The word and the way Shawn said it hadn’t changed; only my ears were different. They no longer heard the jingle of a joke in it. What they heard was a signal, a call through time, which was answered with a mounting conviction: that never again would I allow myself to be made a foot soldier in a conflict I did not understand.”

Through this tumultuous journey, Westover comes to realize many things about the world that were drastically different from the preceding life she knew. Westover prevailingly experiences a newfound force provided to her through an emerging ability to think for herself. She writes, “Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” Throughout Westover’s journey at BYU, she becomes aware of history that she was never taught, with notable fragments such as the Holocaust and first and second-wave feminism, but most importantly, she learns to form her own opinions. In tangent to the drastically divergent realities presented, she subconsciously wonders if the new world constructing itself around her is entirely palpable. She recalls, “I’d been wondering whether something was wrong with me since the beginning of the semester, when I’d attended my first lecture on world affairs. I’d been wondering how I could be a woman and yet be drawn to unwomanly things.” She continues, “From the moment I had first understood that my brother Richard was a boy and I was a girl, I had wanted to exchange his future for mine. My future was motherhood; his, fatherhood. They sounded similar but they were not. To be one was to be a decider. To preside. To call the family to order. To be the other was to be among those called. I knew my yearning was unnatural. This knowledge, like so much of my self-knowledge, had come to me in the voice of people I knew, people I loved. All through the years that voice had been with me, whispering, wondering, worrying. That I was not right. That my dreams were perversions. That voice had many timbres, many tones. Sometimes it was my father’s voice; more often it was my own.”

Despite these mixed feelings and perceptions surrounding her educational experience, various professors continue to propel her forward. As Westover doubted Dr. Kerry’s proposal to send her off to the University of Cambridge in England, he said, “First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.”  Westover continues down this encouraged road, as she tangentially distances herself from her family and the only life she knew. A striking divergence between these worlds emulates through a dramatic encounter with Shawn’s wife, Emily as she barges through the front door of the Westover family home, shortly following Tara’s return from another semester at University. Shawn had flung his wife, Emily, into a snowbank in the freezing Idaho mountain temperatures, and by the time she arrived at Tara’s family home, her feet were so red, “they looked as if they’d been burned”. Some time later, Tara reflects on that evening, stating, “It would be many years before I would understand what had happened that night, and what my role in it had been. How I had opened my mouth when I should have stayed silent, and shut it when I should have spoken out. What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed – what Emily needed – was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion.”

Through this fierce journey of seeking education, Westover found power in choice. She recalls, “In January, nearly ten years to the day since I’d set foot in my first classroom at BYU, I received confirmation from the University of Cambridge: I was Dr. Westover. I had built a new life, and it was a happy one, but I felt a sense of loss that went beyond family. I had lost Buck’s Peak, not by leaving but by leaving silently. I had retreated, fled across an ocean and allowed my father to tell my story for me, to define me to everyone I had ever known. I had conceded too much ground – not just the mountain, but the entire province of our shared history.” Westover’s memoir is a testament to the thesis stated above: Education is power. It allows us power to choose. To adopt our political, economic, and moral beliefs. As Tara Westover looks back to her sixteen-year-old self, she recalls, “No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance – I was still her. At best I was two people, a fracture mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house. That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.”

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