Educated by Tara Westover

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover is remarkable book that many friends have read and a popular selection for their book clubs. Westover was raised by Morman parents in rural Idaho. They fear the government and shunned doctors and hospitals. As a girl, Tara never attended a K-12 school. Yet, she wasn’t homeschooled either. Westover overcame this lack of education and eventually got a PhD at Cambridge. On the surface, her book is about her remarkable self-education, but is really about surviving a brutal childhood of mental and physical suffering. Like the political right denying Christine Blasey Ford’s assault account, Westover’s parents deny Tara’s testimony of assaults.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is so riviting, so compelling, so fascinating because of Westover’s 27-year long escape from her Ruby-Ridge-like upbringing. Her father is a conspiracy theory nutcase and her mother a spiritual healer true believer. Her oldest brother is a psychopath who thrills on physically and mentally humiliating Tara, her siblings, and his girlfriends. Westover’s parents always sides with the brother, always demanding proof of his crimes, like Republicans at the Kavanaugh heearings, refusing any testimony as he said-she said unbelievable.

This denial her view of reality deeply warped Westover psychologically. Without the experience of going to school and seeing normal life, Westover grew up brainwashed by a father who saw our America destroyed by socialism. He taught his children that going to school meant being reprogrammed to accept false beliefs contrary to true Mormon theology and the original Founding Fathers. Westover’s mind was so deeply programmed by her father’s paranoia that she struggled to keep her own identify alive.

Educated works on many levels, and is beautiful written. It’s hard to imagine Westover ever recovering from her upbringing, much less getting a Cambridge doctorate or writing this book. It makes you wonder if all kids shouldn’t skip K-12 classes and we should instead torture them with brutal child labor until they hunger for knowledge on their own.

Educated is the perfect book to read for our times. It carefully documents the kind of freedom the radical right wants revealing how their patriarchical freedom oppresses women. Tara Westover grew up with a family that rejected both history and science. Her father is a survivalist Mormon and her mother is a rural healer/midwife that could have been pulled out of the 19th-century by a time machine.

Educated is a relentless book. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Normally, I fall asleep if I try to listen to an audiobook while sitting. I could listen to Educated for hours at a time while reclined in my La-Z-Boy with perfect alertness.


Where Did You Get Your Cherished Beliefs?

If we had a time machine and went back to the birth of a current Fox News conservative and stolen that baby Tea Partier from the hospital and given it to a very liberal family to raise, would that Republican from our time line grow up to be a Democrat in the altered time line?

In other words, are such basic personality traits as conservative and liberal come from being taught, or are they in the genes?

We know things like racism is learned.  David McCullough in this new book The Greater Journey talks about Charles Sumner who was studying in Paris in 1838 and encountered some black students.  He was surprised that they were treated no differently for their color and they acted and dressed no differently.  This made him realize that how Americans treated blacks in America and how they acted were due to the education of each.

We know that religion is learned.  It’s amazing that so many people stake so much importance on something they received from the randomness of birth.  Any child moved from one culture to another will grow up believing whatever religion they are taught.  In fact, nearly everything one believes comes from what one is taught.  And few people challenge the beliefs of their childhood.

You would think that people would grow up, go off to college, examine all the beliefs from around the world and then pick out the ones they like best.  That usually doesn’t happen.

Then we have biology.  What aspects of our personality come hardwired?  A large part of sexuality for one thing, but not all of it.  It’s rather amusing that some people believe that homosexuality is something taught and when they assume their religion is immutable.  Training a gay guy to be sexually attracted to women is as likely training a horny male heterosexual teen not to think of naked women.  Most sexual beliefs are hard wired.  Sure, certain kinks in the drive can be trained by society, but if you’re a guy obsessed with T&A or a gal who falls for alpha males, you’re pretty much born with it.

Interesting enough, your attitudes about sexual morality can be trained.  We know this several ways.  Adults change their attitudes all the time with training, but we also know people raised in different parts of the world have different attitudes about sex.  We also know if we transplant children from one culture to another their attitudes will change.  Attitudes towards gays have significantly changed in recent decades because of social education.

Once you realize that the beliefs you hold most dear are taught to you then you can free yourself of cultural programming and start to reprogram yourself.

When I was a teen I realized I ate what I ate because that’s how I was raised.  As an experiment I became a vegetarian.  When I was very young, before I was a teen, my mother tried hard to make me religious, and my Air Force dad tried hard to make me a pro-military Republican.  I tried to be what they wanted, but then I read too many books and realized I could be what I wanted.

If you hate blacks and gays, it’s because you were trained to hate them.  If you see all kinds of sins in the world, it’s because you were trained to see them.  Anyone who wants to be truly free must examine where their beliefs come from.

I recently read Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne, about the Comanche Indians.  The Comanches like to take captives.  They would torture and kill adult male enemies, and they would rape and enslave grown women, but they would raise captive children like their own, even if they were white, black, from another Indian tribe or any other race.  Captive children who grew up with the Comanches often loved their new way of life and would do anything not to be recaptured.  The most famous of these was Cynthia Ann Parker.  This really illustrates just how much of our beliefs are taught to us.  And it showed how smart the Comanches were because they knew they couldn’t retrain adults.

Religion, eating habits, philosophical beliefs, sexual morality, passions, hatreds, xenophobia – all are not relevant to the facts of reality.  They are clothes you can dress up in and change just as easily.  What’s important are to learn what’s real – aspects of reality that doesn’t change.

Too many people are looking at the 2012 political campaigns not because of what’s real, but because of things they were taught to believe.

Just remember, if you were taught to believe something, you could have been taught to believe something else.  If you are a Christian, you could have just as easily been a Muslim if you were born in a different location on our globe.  What’s truly valuable is what’s true no matter when or where you are born, and the same truth applies to all people.

JWH – 9/5/11

Why We Fail to Fix Our Large Problems

Today I read “Was the $5 Billion Worth It?” an interview with Bill Gates, Jr. at the Wall Street Journal, which asked him if he felt his money spent on fixing education in America was well spent.  Here is one significant reply:

Asked to critique these endeavors, Mr. Gates demurs: "I applaud people for coming into this space, but unfortunately it hasn’t led to significant improvements." He also warns against overestimating the potential power of philanthropy. "It’s worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that’s ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it’s truly a rounding error."

Every night when I watch the evening news I get depressed because we are facing so many huge problems that we can’t seem to fix, no matter how much money, effort and brain power we put into finding solutions.  We have education, the budget deficit, global warming, health care, unemployment, the economy, religious conflicts, over population, and the list goes on and on.  At first I was going to list the war in Afghanistan, but wars always seen to end someday, so they fix themselves – the problems I’m talking about are the ones that never get fixed and we argue over the solutions our entire lives.

If we spend $600 billion a year on education, how come education in America is seen as a huge honking failure?  Today I read that only 12% of the American public believes in evolution and that around 50% believe that Jesus is due to return to Earth sometime soon.  Is that a failure of the education system, or does it show a basic inability for the average person to learn.

But if you look at our big problems there is one consistent factor that few people want to address, and that is we’re polarized over how we view the fundamental working of reality.  Essentially there are two philosophical opposing groups which I’ll label Science versus the Faithful.

The largest group are the metaphysical believers – people that think the Earth is our temporary home while God decides our true destination.  They believe Earth is the center of God’s creation and humans are his chosen beings, and this life is a test of our souls.

The other group, sees the universe as being very old and very big, and the Earth and humans are insignificant compared to the rest of the cosmos.  They see reality working by very exact laws that can be discovered through science and mathematics.  These people believe our lives are only as important as we make them for ourselves. 

God’s faithful, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or the many spiritual followers of Eastern religions believe in ancient holy books, written before science or history.  These spiritual texts can’t coexist with science.  The worshipers of these books firmly believe the key to metaphysical reality is within their scriptures.  Most of the faithful accept the tenets of their beliefs after only a brief exposure to their basic concepts.  Believing is very easy.  Giving up these beliefs are very hard.

The followers of science believe knowledge is vast and to understand reality requires reading hundreds of books.  They are the believers in good liberal educations, which means it takes twenty years of solid study to get a decent grasp on reality.  Learning is very hard, and it’s so easy to forget.

The faithful believe much of education is a waste, and that a good deal of it are lies.  They refuse to believe in evolution because they can’t comprehend it and because they intuitively understand it invalidates their most cherish belief, that we have souls that can exist in an afterlife.  They refuse to believe in global warming because they can’t comprehend the science and because they believe this life is not important, but the next one, an eternal life in paradise should be our ultimate concern.

It’s probably more than obvious that I’m on the side of science.  The really good question is:  If we were all on the side of science, could we solve the really big problems we face?  I think so.  But I know the faithful also believe if everyone believed the tenets of their holy books the world would be a beautiful place too.

I wish there was some kind of compromise so we could make everyone happen, but there isn’t.  The strange thing is the faithful think Earth is of no value, so why can’t they let us have this world since we loved it so much more.  The faithful should live like the Amish, pursuing simple lives, following their spiritual disciplines until they die.  I can’t understand why the faithful want to run this world when it matters so little to them in their philosophy.  Why do they want political power when they should be seeking piety.

Here a logic puzzle. 

We have four possible paths – two real actions betting on two choices.

  1. Global warming is a fact, we fix things
  2. Global warming is a fact, we don’t fix things
  3. Global warming is a scam, we fix things anyway
  4. Global warming is a scam, we don’t do anything

There are four results.

  1. We save the world
  2. We kill off civilization
  3. We get an energy efficient society
  4. We save some money

If the scientists are wrong the worse thing that could happen is we end up with a very energy efficient society.  If the client deniers are wrong, we end up living in hell.  No logical person would place their bets that lead to result 2.

Yet, for many in our society action 2 is where they want to place all their chips.  And is it any wonder that most of these same people are also desiring the end of the world by wishing for the return of Jesus.  Do they think the Rapture is brought on by overheating?

We will never solve our big problems as long as we’re polarized between science and faith, and neither side seems willing to change.

Someone needs to create a religion where the path to heaven lies in mastering science.  Has none of the faithful ever wondered if their purpose on Earth is to figure out the mysteries of reality?  I guarantee there are plenty of clues if you’re willing to study science.

JWH – 7/25/11

Waiting for “Superman” – The Indictment of the AFT and NEA

Waiting for “Superman” is an inspiring, if clunky, documentary about the problems of education in America.  The director, Davis Guggenheim, made two other popular documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud.  I doubt Waiting for “Superman” will ignite the political firestorm that An Inconvenient Truth did, it doesn’t feature Al Gore, but it essentially convicts the AFT and NEA teacher unions for causing the failure of the American education system.  To be perfectly fair, all viewers of this film should read the AFT and NEA responses to this documentary.


I called Waiting for “Superman” clunky because it starts off slow.  My movie buddy left after five minutes to go find something else to watch at the theater, but I think she regrets it after I told her how much better the film got and the fact that she picked a dud of a Woody Allen film to sneak into.  The show is also clunky with old clips from the 1950s Superman television show, amateur undercover video, dull press conferences and most unfortunately, uneven interviews with five students and their parents that was the core of the narrative.  The featured real people were not always persuasive and some of the kids seemed bored by being subjects of a documentary.

To me, Waiting for “Superman” gets an A+ when it was presenting animated graphs.  The actual facts and figures about the failure of American schools are the real stars of this show – but I don’t know if they are accurate.  If you go see this documentary, don’t get sidetracked by the specific student stories Guggenheim tries to tell.  The five students and their families did generate a certain level of emotion with me, but sadly, they didn’t seem like particularly good sample cases.  Too much of the movie focuses on these kids trying to win school lotteries, time that could have been spent on sexier facts.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone in America should see this film.  I work at a College of Education, but not as an academic, so I’ve spent over twenty years hanging around with educational professionals and heard a lot.  And the ones I’ve talked to consider Waiting for “Superman” misleading if not fraudulent.    I’ve read many books, articles and seen quite a few other documentaries on the same topic.  It’s a complex issue that no 102 minute documentary can cover fairly.   The important thing is to get involved with the problem.  Education in America is like Global Warming, a giant iceberg in our Titanic’s path – if we don’t change course we’re going to crash and sink.  I’m sorry, that’s really a bad metaphor.  In both cases we’ve already crashed into the iceberg, the real issue is how many people are going to make it to the lifeboats.

Hundreds of high schools in America have over fifty-percent failure rates, which Guggenheim and others call failure factories.  This is the heart of the story, and Waiting for “Superman” does a B+ job of explaining.  This topic deserves it’s own weekly PBS show, like NOVA.  We spend so much of our TV time on partisan political histrionics while ignoring the real issues.  The Democrats, Republicans and Tea Party candidates have zero content value when it comes to dealing with the real problems in America.  Waiting for “Superman” at least focuses on something real and meaty.  The subject deserves at least 52 hours – one hour a week of required watching for everyone in this country.  We waste countless hours each week on political bickering that leads nowhere.  Waiting for “Superman” gets an A+ for defining an important issue.

Not to spoil the movie, but Waiting for “Superman” makes the following hypothesis that needs to be tested:  If we change the system it is possible to teach kids from the worse economic environments to beat the average test scores now from the best economic environments.  This is the core of this film.  It says America is cruelly and inhumanly condemning millions of its citizens to educational starvation and stunted intellectual growth.  Waiting for “Superman” tries to express this graphically and emotional as a film, but I feel it only succeeds with a C- effort.

This is a heated subject, and Americans want to blame the students for not studying, the parents for not parenting, teachers for not teaching, and principals and superintendents for not leading.  They feel that taxes are being wasted on education in America, and many want to even abolish the U. S. Department of Education.  I give Waiting for “Superman” a B+ on explaining how such thinking is leading to national Hari-kari.

Waiting for “Superman” does have a prescription for educational success.  It suggests by showing the strengths of experimental schools that a longer school day, including Saturday classes, with a full-time school year, combined with  good school teachers that  we could have dramatic change.  To get good school teachers the film implies we need to do away with teacher tenure and allow school systems to fire poorly performing teachers.  Thus the burden of changes  comes from attacking the teacher unions, requiring them to give up job security and require working longer hours, and to work all year round.  That’s a lot to ask.

The film left out asking students and parents to do more.  I guess the filmmakers assume parents and students already want more for themselves and are willing to work harder, but I don’t think that’s true.  That’s where Waiting for “Superman” gets a big fat F.  It doesn’t show how kids and parents are failing the system.  Sadly, too many Americans are just plain ignorant when it comes to understanding the value of an education.  But we can only be a great nation if the average intelligence of our citizens is greater than the average intelligence of all the other national citizens we compete with on the world stage.

That’s why education is an issue that’s equal to global warming.  We could survive the worst scenarios of each, but who really wants to live in a Mad Max future.

JWH – 10/24/10

Get Rid of Textbooks!

Every year I acquire a few K-12 textbooks that are given away where I work.  I am amazed at the quality of these textbooks as compared to those I studied 40-50 years ago.  Mine were much smaller, plainer, and simpler.   Modern textbooks are marvels of knowledge presented in beautiful full color multimedia layouts.  And they are HUGE.  If children are studying these books this generation should be the most well educated generation ever.  Then why all the bad press about failing schools and under achieving kids?  Could the textbooks be part of the problem?

At first glance modern K-12 textbooks look more comprehensive than my general education textbooks in college.  If high school students mastered these books they should be much smarter than college students from the baby boom era.  But then I got to thinking, maybe these giant tomes provide too much content for young people.  Could academic apathy just be a rejection of being over programmed?  Are we trying to stuff too much into growing minds?

I picked up these textbooks for reference works.  I can’t imagine being in the 11th grade and having to master five of them in nine months.  Three of the volumes I picked up this year where American Literature (10th), British Literature (11th) and World Literature (12th).  I got the teacher’s editions and each volume has hundreds, if not thousands of teaching suggestions, questions, quizzes, activities, etc.  This is a lot to learn and to teach.

The goal is the systematic injection of facts, more facts, and endless concepts.  On the surface, the desire to educate is motivated by wanting children to have a deep and wide knowledge of the world and history.  This is great in concept, but I’m wondering is its wrong.

I can imagine an interesting experiment for some school systems to try.  Take 11th graders, and instead of giving them a textbook on British Literature at the beginning of the year, start the year by telling them they are required to each edit and produce a textbook on British Literature to be handed in at the end of the year.  All great literature before the 1930s is available on the Internet in public domain versions, and even selections of copyrighted material after that is available.  Students could collect the content, write an introduction for each piece, and an analysis afterward.  They could do the layout and graphics, and if they wanted, have a hard copy printed-on-demand for less than the cost of buying a professional textbook.

Wouldn’t students learn more by doing?  Wouldn’t learning about British Literature be more fun as a treasure hunt than rote memorization?  Teachers could still guide the students lesson by lesson by discussing a required reading list, but they could also expect students to find their own supplemental reading.

Teachers could lecture on authors, assign a standard poem, story or essay for all to read, and then require students to collect additional works from the author’s output that they felt an affinity for, to add to their personal textbook/anthology.  Lesson plans could be built around students sharing their experiences.  Competition would arise to who could find the coolest works to collect.

And why not let the students collect art work, photos, letters, diaries, and other content to supplement their poems, stories and essays.  Encourage them to study history, science, social studies, economics, etc. to help explain their selections.

It we had students create their own textbooks they’d have a book for life they could keep, revise and expand, and it might be more memorable and meaningful than being forced to study a book for one year that they turned in when school was over.  Also, they would have something to show their kids and grandkids.

What if college acceptance was based on the textbooks they created in high school?  I know this is a bizarre, radical idea, but the Internet is changing our society in all kinds of ways.  With computers, software and the Internet, students shouldn’t have too much trouble creating their own textbooks, and imagine what kind of textbooks they could create for the iPad, which adds the dimensions of sound and video.

Instead of buying students hundreds of dollars worth of textbooks, buy them Adobe Creative Suite and require them to be creative.  Expect them to work instead of memorize, I believe they will learn more that way.  Can you imagine a K-12 system that was based on productivity instead of passive learning?  And students would learn so many practical skills as a byproduct of this kind of schooling.  And the same concept could be applied to all other courses. 

We might have more scientists, engineers and mathematicians if students spent their time doing productive work rather than memorizing.  K-12 students in the course of their academic careers should make a telescope and microscope, design a house, assemble a car, build reproductions of all the classic science experiments, reinvent mathematics century by century, put together a radio, television and computer, and so on.

Every school year in a student’s K-12 life is really trying to learn about reality from the Big Bang to the present.   We weave the language skills with math skills and then start studying the history of reality over and over again, with each school year expanding on the previous one.  That’s a lot of knowledge to catch up on.  Maybe kids would learn better by recreating how it was discovered rather than being forced to memorize the facts.

I remember my elementary, junior high and senior high years, they were like a 12 year prison sentence that I had to endure by sitting and being forced fed a curriculum not of my choosing.  Study, memorize, test, study, memorize, test.  It was all so painful.

JWH – 5/14/10   

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