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Higher Education and Identity Issues in Tara Westover’s 'Educated'

Does engaging diversity in college mean unmooring people from their identities, or anchoring them more fully within those identities?

January 11, 2019
 
 

Anytime you feel a little burned out working in higher ed, get Tara Westover’s Educated down from the shelf and reread this passage:     

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. (p. 304)       

That is an eloquent articulation of the animating idea behind a liberal education. It is mind training for the arduous work of being a free person in a democratic society.         

Liberal education worked magic for Tara Westover. That is mostly because she is a remarkable intellect, but also because professors paid attention to a shy, out-of-place girl who had barely been homeschooled and saw the spark of brilliance. They perceived the angel within the slab of stone and persuaded that angel to release herself.          

Outside of the many affirmations in the book about the power of caring professors and the intellectual electricity of college environments, what struck me most about Educated is the discussion of identity in the book. Namely, how Westover’s experience of higher ed unmoored her from the world she came from and the stories she lived by (the truths given to her by her father), and how ambivalent she felt about that unmooring, even as she became increasingly clear-eyed about the craziness and violence of life as part of the Westover clan on Buck’s Peak.      

“Why does she keep going home?” my wife wondered aloud as she read the book. Home was, after all, a total madhouse. A world in which her father constantly railed against the medical establishment, the federal government and the Illuminati, all the while putting his family in perilous situations to prove how God protected them, somehow concocting heavenly justifications each time a serious injury took place.

But it is the draw to home, to identity, to a sense of mooring, and the expression of ambivalence about the freedom that the path of higher education offers that makes Westover’s book not just a great contemporary read but also the kind of text that is potentially a classic. Self-creation is, after all, not the only thing we humans need. Community, identity, a place in a story, the affirmation of our fathers – these things matter too.

Westover gives voice to that ambivalence in passages like this:

I had won a visiting fellowship to Harvard. I don’t think I have ever received a piece of news with more indifference. I knew I should be drunk with gratitude that I, an ignorant girl who’d crawled out of a scrap heap, should be allowed to study there, but I couldn’t summon the fervor. I had begun to conceive of what my education might cost me, and I had begun to resent it. (p. 293)

As I contemplated Tara’s journey, and the challenge of being caught between the known world of the Westover clan of Buck’s Peak (its manifold craziness and its peculiar comforts) and the dizzying freedoms of her powerful mind, I had the sudden realization that she was not the only character that experiences the tension between a fixed identity and a floating liberation.

It is easy enough to say that higher education did Tara Westover a great service by unmooring her from a fundamentalist white quasi-Christian identity (the Westover’s were formally part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but many of their practices departed from Church teachings and shared important features with other ‘fundamentalist white quasi-Christian’ worldviews, which is why I describe them this way) that viewed medical science as deeply suspect and insisted on treating serious injuries with essential oils. But when Westover points out that Bob Marley likely died because his Rastafarian faith would not allow surgery on his toe when cancer was discovered there (the surgery would have prevented the cancer from spreading), I couldn’t’ help but wonder this: would I, if I were a faculty member or a diversity officer at a university where Bob Marley was a student, felt uncomfortable unmooring him from his Jamaican Rastafarian identity? (Let’s assume that all I knew was that Bob’s toe hurt – I had no idea about the seriousness of the illness he faced – and that, because of his Rastafarian faith, he wouldn’t go see the doctor.)

The thought exercise brought me back to Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece on Oberlin, especially the moment when a black student proudly told Heller she rejected Oberlin’s notion of a liberal education thusly: “I’m going home, back to the ‘hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”

Did Oberlin, in this case, succeed or fail? 

My larger point is this: in an era of higher ed where identity is king, diversity education often means unmooring some people from their identities while working hard to tether other people more deeply to theirs. The standard view appears to go like this: a white middle class Evangelical man ought to be unmoored from his identity, a working class black Muslim female ought to be more deeply anchored in hers.

But what of those values of liberal education that Tara Westover highlights? To see and experience more truths than one’s father told you - no matter what race or religion your father happens to be? To consider multiple perspectives - including ones that feel like they unmoor you? To construct one’s own mind and to self-create - apart from group identity?

Do we offer this pill to all or to some? Is it a privilege or a burden? 

 

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