The passage that ends Chapter 16 of ex-fundamentalist Mormon Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, Educated, encapsulates why religion-focused homeschooling can be a particularly abject form of child abuse.
After somewhat miraculously acing a college-entrance test despite never having gotten a high-school education, Westover recounted the moment she received a congratulatory acceptance letter from the admissions office of Mormon-run Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah.
“Mother hugged me. Dad tried to be cheerful. ‘It proves one thing at least,’ he said. ‘Our home school is as good as any public education.’”
Except that it proved no such thing.
After receiving the letter and knowing she would be enrolling in college classes in a few months, she said,
“I knew I should prepare, try to acquire the high school education [her brother] Tyler had told the university I had. But I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to ask Tyler for help.”
In trying to imagine what she, then 17, might do to crash pre-educate herself for college, she remembered that Tyler, a university student himself, brought the classic novel Les Misérables home with him one Christmas. She thought the book might teach her something useful about history or literature.
“[B]ut it didn’t. It couldn’t, because I was unable to distinguish between the fictional story and the factual backdrop,” she wrote in her memoir. “Napoleon felt no more real to me than Jean Valjean [the protagonist in Les Misérables]. I had never heard of either.”
This is what ignorance does—or, rather, doesn’t do—for a person. It isolates them from the touchstones of their culture and the deep, layered knowledge history has bestowed on mankind.
Attending one of her first classes at BYU, an American history course, she quickly realized how far she was in over her head.
“I’d thought American history would be easy because Dad had taught us about the Founding Fathers—I knew about Washington, Jefferson, Madison,” she wrote. “But the professor barely mentioned them at all, and instead talked about ‘philosophical underpinnings’ and the writings of Cicero and Hume, names I’d never heard.”
The professor later gave a quiz about “civic humanism” and “the Scottish Enlightenment,” strange new terms that Westover experienced as “black holes, sucking all the other words into them. I took the quiz and missed every question.”
Sitting in the classroom after failing the quiz, she said she realized she didn’t know enough to be a college student. But instead of resenting her cloistered, stunted upbringing, she said her loyalty to her father defensively “increased in proportion to the miles between us.”
“On the mountain [next to her family home], I could rebel,” she wrote. “But here, in this loud, bright place, surrounded by gentiles disguised as saints, I clung to every truth, every doctrine he had given me. Doctors were Sons of Perdition, Homeschooling was a commandment from the Lord.”
If Westover had not been a spectacularly bright, resourceful and disciplined young woman—she ultimately earned an undergrad degree, a master’s and a Ph.D.—I suspect she would have returned home to her mountain defeated, to live the remainder of her years as all the women in her community did: deferring to a man, cleaning house and raising (and homeschooling) a bevy of kids.
Not a disaster in the grand scheme of things, but then we would never have received this memoir bristling with so much emotional truth and power about not only the human condition but the Sisyphean struggle to know of American children imprisoned in intellectual wastelands.
Westover not only had to overcome the nearly overwhelming lifeforce of her father, who aggressively opposed any education beyond their mountain idyll, the limp support of her mother and the violently abusive resistance of a psychopathically insecure brother. Not to mention the reactionary, uncomprehending disapproval of the entire fundamentalist Mormon faith community in their area.
But Westover didn’t leave the university, although her struggles, which she eventually, agonizingly overcame, had just begun.
In a later art history class, the professor displayed a photograph of a Jewish concentration camp survivor in World War II with a sentence beneath it containing “one of those black-hole words,” she wrote. When the professor called on her to read the sentence, she paused and said,
“I don’t know this word. What does it mean?”
Her question seemed to suck all the sound from the room, she recalls, as her fellow students seemed to freeze in place.
“There was silence. Not a hush, not a muting of the noise, but utter, almost violent silence.”
The word was “Holocaust.”