Self-Creation: A Critical Response to Educated

by Haining Zhou

     “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the time that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Education is like a forbidden fruit. When a person starts the journey, she opens “Pandora's box”. It will bring “great and unexpected troubles”, but it also will leave the “hope” in her hands to go further and experience more of the world. Educated is a memoir written by Tara Westover and published in 2018 in New York. Tara Westover wrote her experiences of how she escaped from her original family and the influence of her father, then achieved “self-creation” by educating herself. She writes in her book,

     “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. 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” (Westover 304).

People may think she suffered a lot, growing up on a rough and troubled journey. She educated herself, learning by herself, fighting for herself. However, I do think in some way, she is lucky. In my own education experiences, finding a way that can fit oneself without being controlled by authoritarian methods is a lucky thing.

     Westover writes a lot about her family, her obstinate father, sadistic brother, weak mother, timid sister and other siblings who left the family. Every time when I read the scene about her father who wanted to “fix” her, I was shocked by those familiar experiences in my own life. My father, Jingbang, was also a stern man. My friend used to describe my dad, saying that just by looking at him a child could be scared to cry. In the past, he was taught to absolutely obey the authorities. Those authorities included the government, leaders, teachers and anyone who seemed like that in a higher position. Nevertheless, in that period, the whole society emphasized everyone was equal. Thus, I think he was torn by two thoughts--absolute obedience and equality. At that time, China was facing a great change from democracy to centralization, from a planned economy to a market economy. Almost the whole generation's personalities were damaged to some degree. My mother's personality also was full of conflicts. On the one hand, she believed she should obey my father. On the other hand, the thoughts of equality between the sexes made her sometimes quarrel with my father. In China, in that period, we couldn't talk about individual thoughts, since individualism seemed like a kind of sin, a sign of betrayal. We were taught to follow what the authorities expected us to do. Therefore, when little, I was forced to obey everything an adult told me to do--my parents, teachers and other elders. However, my parents were dealing with the conflicts inside of them. How they could settle a series of definite rules of what I should follow? It happened a lot that I did a thing that was fine the first time but would be cursed when doing the same thing next time. I was lost. At that time, I didn't know there was a me. What I knew was I always made mistakes and caused trouble. Day after day, I learned to blame myself if I had conflicts with others. I couldn't tell right from wrong because I wasn't allowed to have my own thoughts. The only thing I learned was I screwed things up again and again if I disobeyed. In Educated, Tara Westover has her brother Tyler encouraging and inspiring her to find herself, guiding her to educate herself, and getting out of the quicksand, so she seemed very lucky. I never had someone who could give me a hand. Whenever thinking of my childhood and those moments, I blamed myself because of other's faults and became sad.

     When Tara Westover went to university, she also went through a tough time, like being rejected by her roommates or classmates. However, she also met a lot of kind people who were willing to help her, including providing her a chance to go to Oxford. People may say she suffered a lot during the entire growing up process. Comparing to my experiences, I think she is lucky. In my country, the culture has a fine tradition of respect for teachers. Respect is good, but if the person you respect becomes a god and cannot be questioned, that would be a disaster. Along with my school life, I felt a lot of pressure from my teachers. Usually, a teacher liked the ones who had perfect academic performances. I used to believe this theory and did my best to be a good student. The truth was I found my teachers treating me a little better, but there was still something making me feel ignored. As my father was obeyed to any authorities no matter what happened, he would always stand by my teachers instead of me. Thus, during my whole school life, I was alone and helpless. Once I had a serious dispute with one of my high school teachers, Mr. Wang, about treating every student equally, but he thought those “bad” students didn't have equal rights with “good” ones. With our conflict escalating, Mr. Wang called my father to come to school. At that point in time, calling parents was a kind of threat and it meant I was a dead person, especially for me whose dad would always support the authorities. After my dad came, he roared at me: “How dare you quarrel with a teacher? Do you know who you are?” He didn't ask me what happened since whatever happened, I was the one who should be blamed. He threatened me to make an apology to Mr. Wang or he would kill me. In my country, of course he couldn't kill me, but he really could beat me almost to die. I had no choice but to surrender an apologize. At that moment, I really felt the core of me was dying. However, days later, I heard two other teachers talking about the conflict between Mr. Wang and me. They said it was not my fault and they also thought Mr. Wang treated “bad” student too badly. That was the first time I realized my teacher was not a god and could be wrong; I was not the one who should always be blamed. At that moment, the true me, which was suppressed and ignored, woke up. I began to think about my past experiences and suddenly found that the saddest thing was I had become one of those assailants who were trying to kill the hidden me. Also, at that moment, I was separated from myself and saw “me” from outside. Although I had experienced family training and school education for many years, this moment was the start of the education that was the most important to me. God hadn't allowed Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in case they would gain the knowledge of good and evil, because he knew humans couldn't see the truth and make the right decision. However, if I couldn't tell the difference between good and evil, “me” would surely die. My self-education became my Pandora's box. I had no choice but to open it or I would lose myself forever and become a dead body walking in the world. My heart would sink into hell. I began to fight every yoke put on my shoulders. This resistance brought great and unexpected troubles as the price of my self-education. I pieced together “me” with tears and blood to build her as whole and complete. Tara Westover said she was missing her family every day, but she knew if she wanted to be herself, she had to go away from them. To achieve my self-creation, I also had great disputes with my family. To educate myself, to find a way to get along with myself, I also realized I must leave the ones who always put yokes on me, even though they are the ones I loved. I called my education “the way of the pilgrims”.

     Many years later, I unexpectedly came to America. When I sent my son to the preschool, I found he was encouraged to develop his own thoughts, and what he thought was valued. Rules were more about basic methods to regulate actions instead of changing personalities. Individualism was a thing that should be encouraged, instead of a sin. I found the thing I had fought for so many years was a normal thing in this country for everyone. People can be themselves, and even though some personalities are maybe a little weird, everyone is accepted. There are a lot of opportunities to get education even for older people. It was hard to imagine going back to school if I missed the “right” age in my country. However, this country gave me the chance to go back to school to experience a different education which used to be a nightmare to me.


     I can't blame the miseries what I experienced. I built myself from those miseries. In some way they became a significate part of me. Just like I opened the Pandora's box, going through “great troubles” was the price I paid to finish my self-creation. Those experiences also have given me a soft heart to understand others and opened my heart to focus on the truth of things. I understand why my parents never protected me and know the reason for their actions, so I have come to hold a similar attitude to Tara Westover-- I miss my family every day, but I had to go away from them. I created myself with blood and tears, so I know what a treasure it is. As Tara Westover writes in Educated: “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” (Westover 304). We are both the ones who opened the Pandora's box. We have paid the price and the hope is the reward we deserve.