The sovereignty of education

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. You could call this selfhood many things. I call it an education.

Book: Educated

Author: Tara Westover

Random House (2018) –




This book took a while to finish. Unlike the Goldfinch which took time to read because of its length alone, Educated took time to read because it is a book that makes you stop and wonder—and sometimes not pleasantly—just how far gone some people might be. My favourite lines from this book have nothing to do with education itself: ‘There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.’

Starting from her childhood, in Educated, the author recounts her journey from her foothill-dwelling, survivalist, abusive Mormon family that kept her formally uneducated until 17-years-old at which point she forcefully ventured out to discover a whole new world introduced to her by education.

The book starts off colourfully, with an almost literary bend, discussing life near Buck’s Peak in rural Idaho. It quickly takes a turn for the worse as Westover introduces us to her father, a distrusting, sceptical and rather backward-thinking man who once refused to take her to a hospital after she suffered a neck injury. Following this we meet an abusive brother, a helpful one (Tyler), a deceptive mother, and a couple of others in her family who all contribute in some manner—ugly or otherwise—to make the author venture out to college at Brigham Young University.

Tyler stood to go. ‘There’s a world out there, Tara,’ he said. ‘And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.’

Subsequently the book weaves a tale of Westover’s continuing education and the challenges she faces as someone who entered ‘the system’, which her father so mistrusted, at the age of 17 and with no more than wayward homeschooling behind her, along with the increasing realisation it brings to her about the world her family lives in—particularly her father and siblings—who have still remained the same to this day.

The book moves at a unexpectedly breakneck pace as we see a stark contrast rise between Westover’s own broadening mind and her family’s recession even as her sister, mother and other siblings—all except Tyler who was the first to get formally educated—band together against her, accusing her of being in Satan’s control, even denying the abuse she faced in the past, and trying to lure her out of the education system and back to Idaho. Eventually she is driven to depression and forced to cut ties with her family, something she has realised she must maintain to this day, even after her formal education has concluded.

As someone who loves mountains the end of the book using mountains as a symbol of something she must stay away from was sad to read but in the context of Westover’s life under Buck’s Peak it does make sense. Perhaps I will get the opportunity to revisit Buck’s Peak in a better light someday.

Having said all this it is time to address what I felt about this book; not about its contents or its characters, but about the book as a reading experience. It does not stand up there with modern literary works like the Goldfinch or The narrow road to the deep north, and it generally reads poorly in my opinion. If all you want to take away from this book are cold, hard facts condensed from its many incidents, this can be an eye-opening read; as a book you curl up with and let flow unabashed all over you, this can be a tad disappointing. There is a good chance all the rave reviews piqued my expectations and that is probably why I feel this way, but it is what it is.

The other thing I would rather not question even if only out of respect is the authenticity of this story, particularly because of a lack of proper information explaining how certain things came about. In this I am more than willing to give Westover the benefit of the doubt as this book is worthwhile reading even if it is partly fiction, but it is still worth remembering that questionable characters like the Westover father do exist. These are just my personal thoughts and having been objective in my review I have given this book a handsome four-star rating. And I would certainly recommend it to everyone.

Liked this review?

It takes time and effort to keep up good quality, independent writing. If you liked what you read, please consider supporting this website. I’m always open to discussions via e-mail or iMessage and several readers get in touch this way.

Subscribe to my newsletter

Confluence is a newsletter on science, technology and society, designed to make you think critically about your world. Dispatched fortnightly.

Five reasons to subscribe