What does it mean to be “Educated”?

Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience…the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.

John Dewey

Education is a continuing reconstruction of experience – at least according to philosopher John Dewey. John’s quote was splattered across the first page of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. This book is so amazing that I am at a loss of words to describe its impact – parts of it hit me like a truck, while parts of it softened me like a lullaby; parts of it sent chills down my spine, while parts of it swelled warmth in my chest.

If I could only recommend one book to read this year, Educated would be my pick. In the words of Bill Gates, this is “the kind of book everyone will enjoy. It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

Tara’s book is aptly named and poses this grand question, among others: what does it mean to be educated? What makes one deserving of this word?

Educated = Claiming Selfhood. Unapologetically.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
* * *
I call it an education.

Tara Westover

“I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me (from my family) and that difference is not good. I want to bellow, to weep into my father’s knees and promise never to do it again.”

Traitor. That was how Tara Westover felt when her father & family wrestled for control over her life, and she attempted to fight back.

That was how Tara felt after she rushed her injured brother to the hospital instead of to her mom’s herbal therapy. That was how Tara felt for simply thinking about going to school instead of growing up into her “rightful” place as a stay-at-home mom & wife. That was how Tara felt for telling her brother to stop physically abusing her and throwing her onto the floor. That was how Tara felt for wanting to try on jeans & fitting crops, clothes that she were told to belong to “whores”.

There were moments where Tara had doubts about what she was taught by her parents:

“Sometimes I wondered if perhaps school was less evil than Dad thought, because (my brother) Tyler was the least evil person I knew, and he loved school – loved it more, it seemed, than he loved us.”

But these seeds of doubt & curiosity rarely blossomed into the fruits of action. These prescient signs of Tara’s claim to her selfhood were crushed time and time again in a vicious loop:

“Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go.
* * *
But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.”

Naval Ravikant said: “If you want to see who rules over you, see who you are not allowed to criticize.” I would take that one step further – if you want to see who has the greatest power over you, see who you do not allow yourself to even question.

Such power at its most forceful throws its slaves into this endless cycle of rejecting one’s claim to selfhood, over and over again. Such power at its most damning whispers the hyptonizing words “to simply be is to be evil,” until these words are tatooed into the victim’s soul. One feels its chilling effect from Tara’s words: “I believed then – and part of me will always believe – that my father’s words ought to be my own.”

The most lethal poison is one that you drink as if your life depended on it; the most deceitful mask is one that you wear as if it were part of your natural skin. Eventually, you are no longer able to discern between what is your voice vs. what is the voice from others – they blend into one, and you take the latter as your own. You have rejected selfhood. You have given up believing in selfhood.

The dictionary definition of “selfhood” is “the quality that constitutes one’s individuality; the state of having an individual identity”. Interestingly, according to Google Books, the frequency that the word “selfhood” appears in English works have been on the rise in the past two centuries. This upward trend coincides with the rise of individualism and freedom of expression:

I argue what sits at the core, as the prerequisite, of being “educated” is to claim our selfhood. To claim our selfhood unapologetically. To question others’ claim over our selfhood critically. Becoming educated starts with saying: “I recognize and honor my innate right to define and continuously redefine my self.” Selfhood is where education starts. Selfhood is where identity starts. Selfhood is where living as a free, breathing being starts. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Tara remembers vividly the defining moment where her brother, Tyler, stood up for his selfhood:

“‘College is for extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,’ Dad said (when Tyler wanted to go to college). Tyler stared at the floor, his face tense. Then his shoulders dropped, his face relaxed and he looked up; it seemed to me that he’d stepped out of himself. His eyes were soft, pleasant. I couldn’t see him in there at all.”
* * *
“I will always remember my father in this moment, the potency of him, and the desperation. He leans forward, jaw set, eyes narrow, searching his son’s face for some sign of agreement, some crease of shared conviction. He doesn’t find it.”

Selfhood starts when we no longer copy the “shared conviction” of the group. When we “step out of ourselves” to inspect who we are. When develop convictions that we could truly call our own.

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…If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now.
* * *
What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

Educated = (Re-)Creating the Structure of Life. Unconstrained.

You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance…The underlying structure of your life determines the path of least resistance.
* * *
Structure determines behavior.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance
The shape of water is defined by the structure it is in

“‘It’s time to go, Tara,’ Tyler said.
The longer you stay, the less likely you will ever leave.
‘You think I need to leave?’
* * *
Tyler didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate.

‘I think this is the worst possible place for you.’ He’d spoken softly, but it felt as though he’d shouted the words. ‘There’s a world out there, Tara…And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.

Leave. Leave home. This was the advice Tara’s brother Tyler gave her, before he himself walked away from home, and never looked back.What Tyler was really telling Tara was this: change the structure of your life. As long as you are stuck in the same structure, you will never know what the world is like out there. Worse still, you will never be able to imagine what life on the other side is like.

Tara’s recalls her experience taming a wild horse:

“In the space of a moment, he had accepted our claim to ride him, to his being ridden. He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that other world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.

People commonly believe that if they change their behavior, they can change the structures in their lives. In fact, just the opposite is true.
* * *
If you are in a structure that leads to oscillation, no solution
will help. This is because these psychological solutions do not
address the structure, but rather the behavior that comes from
the structure.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance

In the memoir, Tara wrote about native Apache women, whose fate were dictatated by the customs & rules set in their community:

I thought about the Apache women. Like the sandstone altar on which they had died, the shape of their lives had been determined years before…Decided. Choices, numberless as grains of sand, had layered and compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.

Just like the Apache women, the shape of Tara’s life has been determined years before she was born. Before she was born, her parents had decided not only what she would become, but also what she would believe. She would believe schools and medicine were evil. She would believe women should not work. She would believe giving birth at home with a “midwife” without any formal training or certification was safer than giving birth in a hospital. She would believe the “non-believers” – those who held opposing beliefs – were out here to get her. She would believe the Feds could come with their guns to hunt her family down anytime.

As long as Tara was stuck in this structure, she would never have a shot of truly breaking free:

“I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms…that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.”
* * *
“All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.”

Leaving her birth family was an educated decision for Tara. It is hard to imagine how she felt as she wrote these words: “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them…You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

It takes education and courage to re-create the structure of life, such that the path of least resistance takes you to where you want to go, such that you re-shape the cup so the water morphs into the shape you have in mind.

This could mean saying goodbye to people you love and / or people who love you:

“We think love is noble, and in some ways, it is. But in some ways, it isn’t. Love is just love. And sometimes people do terrible things because of it.
* * *
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you…It’s very difficult to continue to believe in yourself and that you’re a good person when the people who know you best don’t.”

Perhaps part of us would always miss the old structure that we broke away from, just as a part of Tara would always miss her family – or rather, the parents she wish she had:

“…(I thought of) my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.”

But to be educated means the ability to detect the unsolvable conflict between the present structure & your future self. To be educated means the audacity to craft a new structure where your true self could blossom. After the initial ‘cultural shock’, you will eventually find peace:

“I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances…I learned to accept my decision for my own sake.”

Believe it: you will eventually find your inner peace when you let your inner self blossom.

Education is about Making a Person

I leave you with one last quote from Tara:

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.

Tara Westover

Educated means claiming selfhood – your right to define yourself as a person. Educated means crafting structure – the birth-bed to let your selfhood flourish.

Borrowing words from the rationalist school of thought that it’s not about being more right but being “less wrong”, the making of a person is not about becoming more perfect but “less flawed” and “less plastic”.

Circling back to John Dewey’s quote at the very top: education is the continuing reconstruction of experience. I wish we all continue smoothly along the journey of education, of bringing us closer to the person we want and deserve to be.