A review of Tara Westover’s Educated (by a homeschooler)

On Saturday mornings, we drive our daughter down to Naples for fencing lessons. Although Naples is not far away geographically, it takes roughly 45 minutes each way to get there with stop-and-go brunch and farmer’s market traffic. Then her fencing lessons usually run about two hours long.

This ritual requires that I tow along a lot of reading material. I subscribe to enough newspapers and magazines that publishers seem to think I am a dentist – the Financial Times, Miami Herald, Washington Post (which is not that bad anymore, now that they have dropped their toxic obsession with Trump – in fact, their coverage of the Ukraine War has been amazing), The Economist, New York Times Book Review, Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Food and Wine, Bon Appétit, Garden and Gun, The Local Palate, Southern Living, National Geographic, Astronomy…. They keep sending me “professional rate” invitations for magazines for the dentist office that I do not have, and I keep mailing them back in. This is what carries me through hours of En garde! Prêts? Allez!

Last week, I was bored with the usual fare and decided to purchase a book on my Kindle instead. I ran my finger down the rankings in the New York Times Book Review. This is not a place I typically look for reading material. While I enjoy the weekly long-form book reviews of academic content, the listings of bestsellers will not leave you feeling optimistic about the future of humanity. Cable news politics, banal hatred, culture wars detritus. Content specifically written to pleasure the women’s book club circuit – complete with an appendix of discussion questions, for a target market who feels like they peaked in AP English.

I saw Tara Westover’s book Educated has spent over 130 weeks on the list. Sure, why not? Download.

***

When this book was published back in 2018, many of my friends were surprised I had not read it. It’s a book about homeschooling, after all. But from what I could glean, it seemed primarily to be a story about using the lax homeschooling laws in western states as a cover for physical abuse and neglect. Filling out homeschooling paperwork does not make someone a homeschooler, I would explain. Actually educating your kids makes you a homeschooler.

As longtime readers know, I am an enthusiastic homeschooler but not a homeschooling activist by any means. I will be the first to tell you that not all parents should homeschool their children, whether the law allows them to or not. I’m not going to dictate how other people raise their kids, of course, but that doesn’t require I endorse what they are doing.

I’m not going to win any accolades in homeschooling circles for this observation, but not all parents will provide a better education for their kids than public or private school alternatives. Taking ownership of your child’s education is a very big deal. The buck stops with you. You need to be the kind of person who will devote hours to researching curriculum options, go out of your way to get your kid involved in their community, and stick with a program through triumphs and meltdowns alike. You need to have the financial resources to afford quality educational resources or be willing to make personal sacrifices to obtain them. You either need to be well-educated yourself or actively willing to fill in the holes in your own learning. You need to be the kind of person who will model being a lifelong learner for your kid.

Anyone who tells you homeschooling can be “easy” or “cheap” is either trying to sell you something or misleading you about the effort involved. As millions of Americans have flocked to homeschooling for non-academic reasons lately, homeschooling has blown up as a marketplace of charlatans promising easy-outs on academics. There is no shortage of mommy blog and Instagram phonies talking about how simple and wholesome homeschooling is, while providing zero substance whatsoever.

If you have priorities that will compete with your kid’s education for your time and interest, then don’t homeschool them. Whatever those priorities might be. If you are more interested in your LinkedIn profile or billable hours than your kid’s basic development, then by all means, outsource their education to an adult who actually cares about their education as a project. If you are more interested in finding your next romantic relationship than working through pre-algebra, your kid needs a real teacher. If you want to leave your kid out in the backyard all day – because “playing in the mud is learning too” and “not all kids need to go to college” – so you can spend 7 hours ranting about how the Deep State is treating Vladimir Putin unfairly in Q Anon chatrooms, for the love of all that is holy, put your kids in a traditional school. I feel like it goes without saying also that if you struggle with severe mental illness, maybe you should not be adamant about being the sole influence in your kids’ lives.

This is not a difficult topic for anyone who is not a crank moral relativist or who doesn’t need others to affirm their life choices regardless of whether they are good or bad. And that’s basically what Educated is about: the developmental struggles of kids whose parents refused to put their kids’ interests first, but instead subordinated their kids’ education to their own dramas and obsessions.

Westover’s parents belonged to a fundamentalist/survivalist mindset, and refused to enroll their children in school thanks to an extreme skepticism of anything involving the government. They did not want to educate their children, but they did not want the government educating them either. The result was neglect in the extreme. But one could make the same exact argument for parents whose children are now several academic years behind where they should be developmentally after years of virtual learning and masked classrooms. “I pay taxes, why should I have to help my kids learn math? Mommy needs these kids back in the classroom so I can focus on my generic middle class career path.” Same selfish lunacy, same results.

***

In reading Westover’s memoir, I had two durable impressions: (1) this book would likely not have been as popular in a pre-Trump cultural environment, and (2) Westover is an unreliable narrator – borderline fabulist, really. I will take these points in turn.

I wanted to be sympathetic with Westover.

When she was describing her family dynamics, horrific as they were, I felt like she was describing people I have (unfortunately) encountered numerous times in homeschooling meet-ups. If Westover’s mother were homeschooling now, she’d probably proudly describe herself as an “unschooler.” She’d brag about how she has liberated her children from a traditional curriculum, preferring instead to have her children learn basic concepts by watching her blend herbal remedies, helping deliver babies as an illegal midwife, or by working in their father’s scrapyard. They’d learn “engineering” from pulling copper wires from junk appliances or dissecting motors from wrecked cars. They’d learn “human biology” from water births. They’d learn “chemistry” from essential oils. Who needs textbooks when you have real life?

I cannot tell you how many times I have silently groaned as an unschooler equates watching machinery move about on a construction site with being being able to calculate force and momentum. Or pulling a hoe in the garden with understanding the cellular structure of plants. In their minds, there is no distinction between conceptual knowledge and applied knowledge.

There is a vocal minority of homeschooling parents out there who genuinely believe this is the most effective way to “teach” their children, and they will unfriend/block you in a hot second if you suggest that this approach has any shortcomings. (In fact, a complete unwillingness to entertain other perspectives / process constructive criticism is one of the main reasons they don’t want their kids in school. You can’t brainwash them with your elitist ideas about book learning!) When Westover explained what it was like to prepare for the ACT coming from such a background, I had zero difficulty relating her experience to what I have seen in some other families. I totally recognize the tension between trying to pull off something like that and then having a parent take credit for the mountain you have scaled alone. “See, homeschooling is easy!”

Most of these families do come from households that are far, far-right politically. Before Trump, I would imagine most people in urban areas had not given any thought to the Randy Weaver crowd. I would also imagine most people would have found it beyond implausible that there were young adults out there who had never heard of the Holocaust, a problem Westover allegedly had during her first semester in college at BYU. These details probably would have nixed a manuscript from publication even a decade ago. But now we have folks in the US House of Representatives who talk about Jews with space lasers. It’s not so difficult to conceive of a kid who has never heard of the Holocaust anymore.

You can log on to social media now and find thousands of parents seeking advice on how to prevent their daughters from romanticizing “feminist” notions like getting a college degree, having a job, or not wrapping a veil around her head for church. Bring back the ankle-length skirts and stop showing those sinful knees is a real movement in the post-Trump conservatism-as-a-counterculture era, which is frankly kind of hilarious given the gleeful sexual immorality of their political demigods.

You hear Westover cry over and over about how her parents could have just enrolled her in public school and then she could have a “normal” education and childhood, be exposed to new ideas. It’s a sad lament across hundreds of pages that has clearly resonated with what millions of people now see in the world. Would this caricature of her fundamentalist/survivalist parents have sold as easily in an America where the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were not household names? Without media coverage of Charlottesville and January 6th, would people be as interested in a family that could see themselves in Ruby Ridge? When Westover says her father would not stop carrying on about the Illuminati, everyone knows that was the precursor to Pizzagate and QAnon.

Westover didn’t even have to invent a villain. Her parents were prefabricated devils within certain circles. Selling the trauma of living with her proto-QAnon dad to the political left was as easy as Tucker Carlson selling a Seth Rich conspiracy to the political right.

***

For as much as homeschooling activists preach about all the cultural problems homeschooling “solves,” the reality is that homeschoolers often end up replicating those problems within a different format. Public schools sort themselves. Homeschoolers sort themselves too.

Would Westover have truly been better off in a public school than at home? Would it have changed her fate? I doubt it. Westover was born and raised in Clifton, Idaho, which has a population of 257 people. Most of the people in that town are probably exactly like her parents in terms of ideology and background. Her rise to sophisticated academic institutions would be just as improbable in a Clifton public school as it was at home.

When I worked in public policy, I had the opportunity to tour many public schools in Appalachia, which culturally is not all that different from the Mountain West hollows. A principal in Hazard, Kentucky, confessed to me that his students only had science textbooks because he went dumpster diving at the “rich” schools in Lexington. The legislature didn’t care much about fitting textbooks for the Hazard kids into the state budget. I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering what the teacher would cover in class every day if he hadn’t. Westover has a rosy view of public schools, to say the least.

Beyond that, how often do children growing up in abject poverty have glowing, compassionate experiences in public schools? Children in traditional school environments learn early on to parse their social connections by material wealth, race, religion, you name it. Oftentimes, the adults who work in the school system do this as well, either consciously or unconsciously. I was talking to a mother recently who has a biracial child who said the teachers refused to spend any time with their daughter on math. And why would they in the age of critical race theory, when they are told that the ability to think logically is specifically a white trait? The new orthodoxy says educating this girl is futile. If the mother left her in the public school system, they would happily pass an illiterate and innumerate child through the ranks, until she graduates only qualified for menial labor.

How many teachers would invest extra effort in a child where helping out with the family business or farm competes with schoolwork – whom, statistically speaking, will likely drop out? If you are in a teach-to-the-test landscape professionally, it’s a lot easier to focus on the kids who come from a privileged background and will prop up your numbers, then blame the poor performance of the others on factors beyond your control.

Sadly, however, homeschoolers tend to sort themselves into cliques as much as kids, parents, and teachers in more traditional school environments. Most parents who belong to the classical education movement, for example, would not entertain the idea of their children skipping college. They are not having their kid read Aristotle so he can be a ditch-digger. The parents who are starting their children on Latin in second grade are not mixing it up with the crowd that thinks three park days a week is educational. They don’t want their college-bound kid listening to some delinquent parrot his parents’ beliefs that higher education is only for socialists. As a practical matter, this sort of speech is antithetical to the values they are trying to instill in their children.

That’s not primarily a philosophical divide, though. That’s a socioeconomic divide. In home education, it matters what background your parents have, because their biases will dictate what kind of opportunities you have and how your options in life are framed. Now that Westover’s brother has a PhD and was launched into a different economic class environment from the one he grew up in, he’s still homeschooling his kids. “To higher standards,” Westover says. Not exactly a blistering indictment of home learning.

People who have experienced social mobility tend to want to pass on the strategy behind their social mobility to their kids. People who have not experienced social mobility often find solace in a scapegoat. The socialists are why they can’t have nice things – it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with how they spend their time.

Westover did not want a different format of education. She wanted to come from money. She wanted the trappings that come with money, like nice clothes, nice manners, and parents who valued culture.

***

But is this actually the kind of childhood that Westover had?

From the very beginning of the book, I had the sense that Westover was an unreliable narrator. Initially it was a matter of the myriad contradictions in her storytelling and just the over-the-top events she describes.

Here we have a family with seven children, not just poor but living in squalor, with paranoid conspiracy-theorist parents that do nothing for their education. Not one, not two, but three of the children now have PhDs. Westover went into the humanities, but her brothers went into mathematics and the hard sciences. That’s not talent you can easily fake.

But when the kids were not busy teaching themselves calculus, they (and their parents) were striving not to get killed in graphic, gory ways. Driving off cliffs. Getting punctured with metal beams and bleeding out. Falling off buildings. Setting themselves on fire. (In fact, members of the Westover family have set themselves on fire so many times that a reader could be forgiven for losing count.) Becoming deathly ill and breaking teeth. All cured with lavender oil in measurements God communicated to their mother through her clicking her fingers.

This would be a mother who waited out an ICU-level traumatic brain injury in a dark basement. Because, you know, that’s a thing that can actually happen. (That one in particular really peeved me, since I have a father who experienced a traumatic brain injury in real life. I personally know what that looks like and what the odds of survival are without treatment. At that point, I knew Westover was full of it.)

One of these stories seems a bit much, but by the end of the book, Westover’s spilled more blood than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Then you get into the tales of what it’s like to live in poverty. Westover cannot afford new clothes. Her parents are so destitute that they take her money from sacking groceries to buy food. But then Westover talks about how she grew up with a personal computer in the basement during the late 1980s and early 90s. (I doubt they even had computers in public school classrooms in rural Idaho back then.) Her mother breaks out the fancy china at Thanksgiving.

It doesn’t help that from the earliest chapters Westover includes footnotes about how other family members dispute her claims and some even dispute whether she was present to witness an event. For her, it’s sufficient that something feels true, because we live in an age where everyone possesses their own truth. It’s the weirdest thing I have ever seen in a memoir. It’s like those folks who would “recover” “lost” memories on 80s talk shows by talking to a therapist who loves attention as much as they do.

Westover can never bring herself to confide about her wretched childhood to her first boyfriends, relatives in town (like they wouldn’t know in a place with only 257 people?), or friends. But somehow the first people she can confide in are professors who are deciding whether to flunk her for poor work or who are the deciding factors in getting a scholarship. It’s an interesting symbiotic relationship.

That detail is when it hit me what her book feels like – it reads like one of those “tell me about your struggles” essays that colleges make kids write on applications for admission. Westover takes the collegiate oppression fetish to Olympic levels.

I was so intrigued by my Spidey sense that Westover is a fabulist, I started researching her parents online. Her ignorant hillbilly parents are indeed into herbal remedies, but they run a company with hundreds of employees. Their supplements are so ubiquitous that they are sold at Walmart. Her mother is not some rural witch doctor. Westover makes it sound like they only started to have money (read: became multi-millionaires) after she left for college. But according to online records, the business has existed for 22 years. Westover is 35 years old. Strange, eh? It’s nice to know that a traumatic brain injury that compromises your basic motor skills is not an obstacle to running a large corporation, however.

It turns out Westover’s mother wrote her own competing memoir as a means of rebutting the persona her daughter has crafted. Her memoir is called Educating. (The Amazon reviews have been mobbed by Tara Westover’s sympathizers, for what it’s worth.) I read a chunk of that book too, but I had eventually reached a saturation point with this Jerry Springer family. The book is loaded with pictures of the Westover kids growing up that do not portray anything like what the daughter describes in her book.

I think the mother’s book clearly refutes her daughter’s account of being deprived of an education in some absolute sense, but not because of any of the details the mother provides. It’s her writing style. The mother has a nearly identical writing style to the daughter’s, in ways that would be genuinely difficult to replicate. The same visual storytelling. The same structure. The same cadence to sentences. Although self-published, the book is perfectly edited and not functionally illiterate at all. When you look at the book, there is no disputing who taught Westover to write, and it probably took a major investment of time. The same way if you read one of my daughter’s essays, you would know who taught her to write.

It struck me that this would not be so revealing a trait if Westover had gone to public school and learned to write from a series of teachers who all had their own style of communicating. But she lived in isolation with one teacher, and the exposure and imitation are unmistakable. That’s not a testament to neglect.

***

For all of this, I have been left wondering what was the purpose of Westover trashing her family to this extent. She certainly won’t have to worry about money again for the rest of her life, so there’s that. The parents won’t either. But for all of their social climbing, they have all made each other downright miserable and nuked each other’s identities and reputations in permanent ways. Was it worth it? Is that the life well-lived that a good education is supposed to provide?

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