Education: Freedom Through the Pursuit of Truth
by Andrew Carter
Growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon household, with a survivalist, authoritative father, Tara Westover did not have the typical upbringing that many American youth receive. Throughout her childhood, her perception of the world was almost solely dictated by her father, who imposed his worldview on her. Living in a house on Buck’s Peak in Idaho, Westover was almost completely isolated from the world outside her immediate family. She and her siblings’ homeschooling consisted of studying the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and speeches by Mormon prophets Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. Westover was taught from an early age that survivalist families like her own were in danger of the government, so she spent most of her summers canning peaches and formulating herbal remedies in preparation for the “Days of Abomination” (8). Her father instilled in her that the
Mormon teachings were an absolute truth and anything that deviated from the glorification and obedience of God was dangerous. Before getting out
of her home, Westover’s view of the world was almost entirely controlled by her father. With the few resources she had, Westover was able to overcome the obstacles in her life and start her educational career at Brigham Young University. This then led to her eventually earning a PhD in history from Cambridge University. Although her academic experience brought many
new stressful situations into her life, it was vital for her to finally gain an adequate education. In leaving her previous isolated environment and
a new exposure to ideas she was not familiar with, gave her the opportunity to question the validity of what she was taught to believe as true.
Through her life experiences, Tara Westover learns: to be educated is the challenge of previous beliefs so that one can completely comprehend the fullness of humanity.
Westover’s father, Gene, was the authoritative figure that dictated how her family behaved and viewed the world. He was a believer in absolutes: his interpretation of Mormonism was the absolute truth, as people of God, Mormons are to live their life in absolute purity, and anyone who puts themselves above the glory of God is an enemy. These principles were the
basis of the education that Westover and her siblings were provided with. The extent to which his distrust in common people was passed on to his family was an essential factor in his ability to control the way Westover thought. Gene was a devoted fundamental Mormon who dedicated his life to living in a way that exemplifies the proper way to live out his interpretation of the Mormon teachings.
The main critique Gene held of people in modern society was that they over-valued their personal knowledge and existence, and undervalued the absolute truth of the Mormon teachings about God and how to live for God. Gene held the firm belief that every action one does has a major impact on the purity of said person and their relationship with God, a view that Westover carried with her after deciding to leave Buck’s Peak. The doctrine Gene lived his life by gave Westover an unrealistic expectation of what it takes for people to be intrinsically good.
Gene’s distinct worldview, fundamental Mormonism coupled with survivalism, created a very distinct way of living for the Westover family. The standards he had set for how he would view a person as either good or not, caused him to have a gross distrust in society as a whole. Seeing the social systems in place as incorrect and bound to fail, he believed that survivalist
families like his were likely to be targeted by those who did not adequately prepare to be fully self-sufficient when the government and economy collapsed. In anticipation of this chaotic event, Gene had his family store large amounts of food, supplies, and weapons if the time came where they would need to abandon their home and head to the mountains. His conviction of the government was confirmed after hearing of a siege lasting 11 days on a family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho with a similar lifestyle, resulting in two family members killed by government officials. Thinking that the government would see his family as a threat to the well-being of the system in place, he mentally constructed the government as an enemy. This mentality of all people seen as enemies caused him to be skeptical of most aspects of society, especially institutions and services run by the government. Thus, his children did not attend school, he did not keep his money in a bank, he did not register his car or have a driver's license, and he did not get medical help from doctors or hospitals.
Gene believed that in times of sickness or injury, God had already provided materials required of fixing said condition, and any treatment from the criminals running hospitals would always be inferior. He saw the act of seeking out medical help from doctors as an active pursuit to turn away from God. To accomplish this faith-based approach to medicine, Gene demanded
that his wife, Faye, become an expert in herbal medicine and midwifing, so that the family could rely solely on her knowledge and abilities, and never have to turn to the corrupt medical system Carter 4 for help. The essential aspect to this form of medicine was the faith that God would provide and heal, and without it, God would not heal.
Gene’s concept was challenged when Westover was given pain relieving pills, for the first time in her life, to alleviate an earache (138). In the days prior, she had taken a remedy for pain concocted by her mom, which was not working. Westover had taken this same remedy her whole life and was used to it not lightening any pain at all. After taking the pain relieving pills, the pain in her ear subsided within twenty minutes, leaving Westover perplexed by its effectiveness. She had difficulty comprehending how something absent of faith in God was able to be so effective when the previous faith-reliant method was ineffective. This event was an indication to her that her father’s teachings may not be absolutely true.
Westover’s curiosity of an education, beyond the teachings of her father, began when her older brother Tyler, whom she looked to as one of her few positive role models, decided to leave Buck’s Peak and go to college. Tyler’s decision to leave challenged their father’s view, who saw college as “extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” (40). Before leaving, Tyler showed Westover his music collection and the books that he taught himself with. These lessons quickly became a daily activity and Westover’s favorite part of the day, fascinated by the music she was hearing for the first time. Knowing that going to college was the best way for her to leave Buck’s Peak, Tyler encouraged Westover to buy books and study for the ACT. The time Tyler spent with her and the knowledge that he shared with her were vital to her eventual migration away from the mountain. Without Tyler’s influence, she may never have received positive encouragement to put her desires and aspirations over her father’s views.
After buying books on ACT curriculum, Westover learned one of the most important skills she will need throughout her future academic career, the patience to read things she could not yet understand (62). Before acquiring this skill, Westover spent countless hours staring at the pages of her books without comprehension, especially when studying the Pythagorean
Theorem. When a typical American student has difficulty understanding what they are studying, they simply ask a teacher or faculty member to clarify, a luxury Westover did not have. Even though she tried her absolute best to learn all she could before college, there were many gaps in her knowledge left unfilled.
Once she started at BYU and began to see most students not in the same situation as her, it created one of her first significant stressful situations. The levels of stress she encountered when studying exceeded what she had previously felt while studying at home for the ACT. Luckily, with the help of her first trusted friend away from home, she found it in herself to remain patient and persevere through the puzzling curriculum, and eventually earned grades high enough to get her the Gates Scholarship to study at the renowned Cambridge University.
During the first few weeks of college at BYU, Westover was very confused by people who referred themselves as Mormons, but did not hold themselves to as strict standards of purity as she had been taught to. Seeing her roommate walk around their apartment in a tank-top, which left her shoulders exposed, and tell her what time church was the next day, left her in bewilderment. With the education she had been provided by her father, she could not comprehend someone claiming to be a follower of god so explicitly turning their back on the divine principles required of being a true follower. Instances similar to this, where something that she had been taught to think of as absolutely true were challenged, revealed to Westover that what she had known to be true was all an interpretation of what her father thought to be true. When she began to realize the invalidity of her father’s teachings, it became very difficult for her to equally balance her life at home with her life at school.
Once Westover made it to Cambridge, she began to finally form an independent view of herself. In moving almost halfway across the world to further her education, she realized how serious she was about truly becoming educated. After getting over the initial awkwardness of such a drastic environment change, Westover began to fall in love with the new life she fell into. For the first time, she established a social group whom she could confide in and discuss challenging topics with. Westover was in an environment where, for the first time, she felt encouraged to dive into the vast world of unforeseen knowledge. Although she was deeply entrenched in the fascinating world of academics, she did not get the support from her parents that was needed to allow the two worlds to intertwine.
Although her parents supported her education in the beginning, later on in her journey at Cambridge their opinions began to shift. Her father started to see her continual pursuit of education as the devil exerting his power over her to bring her away from God. While visiting her at Cambridge, he forced her to choose between coming home with them and turning her back on her new life, or losing their support of her. After Westover made the tough decision to continue to study and expand her understanding of humanity, her parents abruptly left in disapproval, forever severing their relationship.
Since beginning her college career at BYU, Westover had evolved far beyond what she may have predicted. Entering as an apprehensive, uninformed teenager, she transformed into a knowledgeable, Caimbridge educated, young woman with a thirst to know more. The dramatic change within herself created a barrier between her and her parents who were unable to accept the life that she chose away from them. Before the end of their relationship, everytime Westover would visit home, she always felt a strong pull to stay and forget her newfound education. Buck’s Peak became more than just the mountain and a house she grew up in. It transformed into
an environment filled with close-mindedness and nonacceptance, with a magnetic force that continued to draw her back to her old life and ways of thinking. Not only physical, but mental separation between her and the life she built for herself was vital to her ability to have a strong sense of an independent self. Without it, she would have spent the rest of her life battling between the old and the new. Her decision to separate herself from the unchanging world she came from, finally gave her the opportunity to be her honest self and truly be educated.
The essential aspect of Tara Westover’s process of becoming educated was the curiosity she had to find truth. Without the curiosity she had of truth, she may never have made it out of Buck’s Peak, let alone earn a PhD from Cambridge University. Through her experiences, she displays the incredible impact that education had on her life. An education is the process of gaining the ability to completely comprehend the fullness of humanity. To become educated, a few key essential elements are needed: a curiosity of ideas that go beyond one’s previous knowledge, a desire to challenge the previous notions, an investigation of the source of information being shared, and the acceptance that what is true today is not guaranteed to be true
tomorrow. The process of becoming educated is one that can take many years, but will provide fulfillment that will last a lifetime.