The main themes in Educated are education and identity, memory and uncertainty, and power and independence.
- Education and identity: Tara's sense of self is inextricably connected to her educational journey and the broadened worldview she has attained.
- Memory and uncertainty: As a historiographer, Westover is conscious of the limits of conveying any history, public or personal. As such, she grapples with the inadequacies of memory as a source of truth.
- Power and independence: Westover traces the power struggles within her family, especially with her often paranoid father, Gene, and her manipulative brother Shawn.
Education and Identity
As suggested by the memoir's title, Educated traces Tara Westover's journey to find herself through education. When the story begins, she is living in an isolationist Mormon household where education is, at best, an afterthought. Even as a child, she understands the social impact of this dynamic. "I am only seven," she says in the Prologue, "but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don't go to school."
While all the Westover children are free to homeschool themselves when work is done, it is through her small glimpses of the outside world that Tara's own identity truly begins to cohere.
Her brother Tyler introduces her to choir music, and she realizes for the first time that she has musical talents. She pursues singing in community performances, and realizes then that she is social. These small glimpses of society outside the compound are enough for her to eventually realize what Tyler has been telling her all along: there is a vast world of experiences she has been sheltered from.
By following in Tyler's footsteps and enrolling in college, Westover's world becomes both broader and more difficult. She is forced to contend with not only the limitations of her education but of her perspective in general. Up to this point, her experience has been so filtered by those around her that she hasn’t had cause to question their unconventional ideas. Now, as she confronts the idiosyncrasies of her own intellectual foundation, she often finds herself bewildered.
When Westover's parents visit her at school with the intention of convincing her to abandon academia and return home, she is finally able to evaluate their motivations with a new sense of self-awareness:
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.
In this moment, it becomes clear that Tara’s sense of personal identity is inextricably tied to her education. To relinquish her broadened worldview would be to relinquish the broadened self she has painstakingly created.
Memory and Uncertainty
When Westover arrives at the university for the first time, she begins to realize just how fragmentary and often incorrect her worldview is. She has been taught one version of history through an unrigorous and religious lens. As she faces the subject in an academic setting, it quickly becomes clear just how little she knows. The author illustrates this experience with one particularly jarring example: She raises her hand in class to inquire about the meaning of a word she doesn’t know in the text. The professor assumes she is joking and gets angry. The word—“Holocaust”—is never defined.
This awareness of her own blind spots ultimately leads her to study historiography....
(The entire section contains 1177 words.)
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