Book responses

Thine own understanding: A review of Educated by Tara Westover


“I believe finally, that education must be conceive as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.”

                                                           — John Dewey


One of the most interesting themes touched on in this memoir by a woman raised in rural Idaho by survivalist parents is the question of how much we can trust our own memories, reasoning, and interpretation of ideas or events. In the story, the author recounts having been frequently injured by an abusive brother and neglectful parents who repeatedly put her in harm’s way and prevented her from having the types of experiences that nourish one’s sense of self. It seemed that the biggest obstacles that she encountered in her efforts to become an autonomous adult were the barriers to trusting her own interpretation of events, even in the face of rejection by her family.

As a woman who was raised in the same religious tradition as the author, I am very familiar with the experience the author described of second-guessing herself and rewriting her story when others disagreed. In our religious tradition, one way that we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves is by frequent use of the Proverb that says “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). That scripture kept occurring to me as I read about how her parents repeatedly encouraged her to set aside her own narrative and embrace theirs. I too have repeatedly been told to do this. For example, I have often been told to trust in my parents with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding, trust in my bishop with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding, and to trust in the brethren with all my heart and lean not unto my own understanding. Each of these, I was told, were the mechanism by which ‘the Lord’ was talking to me. I was almost 50 years old when I began to realize that my ‘own understanding’ was really all I can lean on. The biblical statement seems to be one mechanism by which those who rule and run religious organizations reinforce their own power. (For more on this idea, see Chapter 3, “Of Canons and Cannons: The Use and Abuse of Scripture” in Givens and Givens The Crucible of Doubt.)

Many who belong to and participate in these large religious organizations may feel that their leaders have only the most benevolent intentions, and perhaps that is sometimes true. Nonetheless, the fact is that their leaders are only human beings who have their own biases and conflicts of interest. Consequently, even if you trust that your leader is acting in accordance with their own best intentions, you can’t tell when they are lying to themselves. On the other hand, each of us has an inkling when we are lying to ourselves, and with careful practice, we can learn to interrogate ourselves with brutal honesty. That is the pathway to discovering truth. It’s not by allowing others to tell us what to think and how to interpret scriptures, myths, those little moments of transcendence, our memories, history, and literature; it’s by deciding for ourselves how to interpret those things. That’s what it is to become an adult. The author calls it “education.”

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