An underlying theme of Educated deals with how experiences outside of family life have a transformative effect on Westover. Throughout the novel, Westover struggles to define her own ambition and obvious intellectual acumen against the restrictive expectations that her family puts against her. Westover did not just grow up in a conservative family, but in a fundamentalist Mormon family of survivalists. Her extreme childhood experiences, coupled with a lack of positive reinforcement and the complete lack of exposure she had to new ideas at a young age, inculcated a great deal of self-doubt.
Much of this self-doubt was reinforced during her first exposures to life outside of Buck’s Peak. For example, at Brigham Young University, Westover was shocked by the outrageous behaviors of her classmates and colleagues, which seemed to constitute a normal part of college life. Drinking caffeine and shopping on the Sabbath were severely frowned upon by her hyper-religious family, but BYU’s students were perfectly comfortable behaving as such. Furthermore, Westover’s classmates were flabbergasted when she asked what the word “Holocaust” meant. In Buck’s Peak, where she was isolated from nearly all contact with the outside world, Westover had simply never heard of it.
Thus, the confirmation of her writing abilities at Cambridge came as such a shock to Westover precisely because of her incredibly stifling upbringing. Having grown up and developed her most formative memories in a family that favored conformity and extreme religiosity over any kind of creativity or intellectual self-expression made it hard for Westover to conceive of herself as anything other than a small-town girl. It was this revelation that finally allowed her to form an identity for herself, independent of anything that her parents, or especially her abusive older brother, thought.