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.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180
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. In chapter 28, she explains her choice:
I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I'd felt... I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected—a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality.
Throughout the memoir, the influence of Westover’s historiographical training is evident. Westover takes care to highlight the moments where familial accounts differ, and she often includes footnotes acknowledging other perspectives on the included narrative. Her concern over the fallibility of human memory is illustrated especially well in one passage in the Appendix:
I'd be lying if I said these details are unimportant, that the "big picture" is the same no matter which version you believe. These details matter. Either my father sent Luke down the mountain alone or he did not; either he left Shawn in the sun with a serious head injury, or he did not. A different father, a different man, is born from those details.
Thus the uncertainty of the past and the conflicting nature of history emerges in both broad and intimate ways. In her academic work, Westover grapples with the difficulties of discovering historical truths. And in her own life, she faces a similar struggle to identify the truth of her family’s story, which entails assessing the validity of her own memories.
Power and Independence
Westover explores power through multiple avenues in her memoir. Her family home—an isolationist Mormon compound in the Idaho wilderness—is the primary locus of this exploration. Her father, Gene, has structured the family's life according to his fearful interpretation of religious doctrine. He fears the power of god but also the power of man, which is represented by the government, formal education, modern medicine, secular culture, and conformity. To be safe from these constant threats to their ideological sovereignty, the family must live in near-isolation and remain as self-sufficient as possible. Gene lives at odds with the rest of the world, in a constant struggle to maintain his own power under what he perceives to be an oppressive outside influence. Westover notes in chapter 3:
There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion… It's a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.
Through the author's relationships, issues of power arise at a personal level. This is especially prevalent in her relationships with her father, Gene, and her brother Shawn—two people who purportedly love her but who also frequently exert their power over her in ways that exhibit negligence and, in the worst cases, abuse. As she spends more time away from the compound and develops new critical lenses through which to view her own experience, she begins to recognize this for herself:
Someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested. I did not think of my brother as that person; I doubt I will ever think of him that way. But something had shifted nonetheless.
The author's journey to grow into herself over the course of her education can also be understood as a power struggle. Only by learning to trust herself, her motivations, and her experience can Westover truly construct a life separate from her family’s influence. When she finally achieves this independence, she is free to explore the extent of her interests and powers.