On Natural Education

Review of “Educated” by Tara Westover

April 18, 2018 in The Rockies,U. S. Politics | Comments (0)

By LARRY JOSEPH CALLOWAY (c)

“Educated” is an ironic title for a memoir by a young woman, Tara Westover, who showed up at Brigham Young University from rural Idaho at age 17 without any education at all, not even home schooling. All she knew was the mountain where she lived and the personalities of her extended family and the beauty of the seasons and animals and junk cars and how to ride and tame horses and how to cook and identify herbs and their healing properties, and how to sing before an audience and how to trust her own instincts. The meaning of “educated,” then,  must lie in her flyleaf quote from John Dewey that “education is a reconstruction of experience.” 

At 27 Tara Westover received a PhD in history from Cambridge University in England. Her story, published in March, is sure to provoke public schoolers and believers in Jeffersonian democracy. They will have explanations and investigations. All I have is the suggestion that you read this book.

If it were simply about “another young person who left home for an education. . . and isn’t going back,” as the New York Times review concluded, then her memoir would not be a best seller, despite her skillful story telling. The success is in the setting, the surrounding, which is a mystery to most Americans. Most of the book takes place in what is being called The American Redoubt, by fringe writers and their followers. This is the mountainous spread of the interior northwest (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and parts of eastern Oregon and Washington).

The survivalist culture of the Redoubt (a fortified refuge) involves severing dependance on government, its schools, its police powers its health care requirements, its systems of water, power, and transportation, and its distribution of goods. The culture involves preparing for the political-economical system’s collapse by stockpiling guns, food and fuel and other necessities. Culture is the business of anthropology and this memoir, along with its literary virtues, is anthropological.

Her father is a tyrant, a doomsday prepper who has dozens of guns and a thousand gallons of fuel wrapped and buried. He draws his absolute family authority from random biblical passages. He supports the family with his junkyard salvaging and barn building, in which the seven children as they grow are expected to help. He ignores safety as a matter of crazy religious faith — the angels of the Lord will protect them — and Tara is slashed, impaled and twice nearly crushed to death by his frenzied junkyard sorting. “Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky, in the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel,” she writes.

Still, as the novelist Anna Carey wrote in, alas, the Irish Times (American reviews are routine commercials):  “Westover never demonizes him, or her mother, a midwife and herbalist who facilitated his delusions. She doesn’t even demonize her violent brother, whose behavior provided a further impetus to get away from her stifling environment. She recounts her experiences with a matter-of-act lyricism that is extraordinarily evocative and which makes the emotional impact of the inevitable rift between herself and some members of her family even more powerful.”

Tara Westover’s values are expressed in literary conceits, such as her description of her half-trained gelding by contrast with the mustangs being broken by the violent brother, Shawn. She writes of her horse, “He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that other world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.” 

She lost the reins when her horse panicked during a training ride. Her instinct to hold on to the saddle horn instead of trusting her brother snag the reins as she slid off the bucking horse saved her from being dragged. “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine — that the odds are better if you rely on yourself.”

Self-reliance distinguished her from other teenage girls obsessed with finding a future husband and settling down after high school to raise children, in conformity with the expectations of local society. Shawn, two years older than Tara, enjoyed taunting girls in town who were attracted to him. He seemed perfect. His father’s right-hand assistant in the junkyard, he could drive an 18-wheeler, operate heavy construction machinery, break horses, maintain firearms, hunt, fish and fight. He would do things like ask a mooning girl to go buy him a Milky Way and when she came back with it, complain that he had ordered a Snickers and send her back. The patriarchal tradition demanded they accept this treatment.

Tara softly narrates his similar acts of domination over her — describing her clothing as whorish, holding her head in the toilet bowl while screaming “slut!” crashing into her room and grasping her neck, and as things progressed, threatening her life in various ways. His behavior was denied by their father and ignored by their mother, and her accounts were dismissed as lies by others in the family. She was thought to be possessed.

The book begins with the disclaimer: “This story is not about Mormonism.” Yet Idaho is as Mormon as Utah, and her family went to LDS church on Sundays. Her father and his likeness, Shawn, are vested with patriarchal authority, which is a tradition of the Mormon church (and some other religions). But this is not the male dominance of survivalists, white nationalists or simple militant racists because it comes from religious faith, not from the American secular-consumerist culture gratified by the non-print media and its cast of reasoning politicians. 

There are many others up there in the refuge who have nothing to do with the political exploiters or the self-styled militias. I have friends deep in the geography of the Redoubt who have lived quite well for 50 years on 40 acres in an artful house hand made from used materials, with a shallow well, a fertile garden, freezers full of Alaskan salmon, three cords of bartered sawmill scraps for firewood, and a carefully home maintained VW bus. They depend upon electric power and gasoline, but there are backups. They are neither religionists nor politicians. They are not afraid. They know the best defense is community. They have good friends. Their children went to public school and college.

They represent an American tradition, mostly secular, going way back. A Economist report using the term Redoubt came under the headline: “The Last Big Frontier” and concluded, “The Old West is alive and well.” For a long time, Americans were inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, which said the constantly receding frontier, with its requirements of  communal skills and cooperation, defines American history. 

So what’s wrong with the modern frontier picture? Nothing, except, as the Economist reported, the demand for safe autonomous dwelling places exceeds the supply. One real estate agent in northern Idaho shows properties by air. He flies his own plane and keeps cars ready at several small airports. The historian Turner called the frontier a “safety valve.” But now the cost of escaping urban hopelessness might be beyond the means of most Americans. 

And the picture here encourages resentment, the tyranny of the majority, which under some political conditions can be dangerous. The first chapter of Westover’s book begins with the enduring foundation image — she was only five — of her father gathering the family to tell about the Weavers of Ruby Ridge not far away. She personalized it, imagining for the rest of her childhood gunfire and shouts as the family hides in the kitchen and her mother holding a baby when, “a shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls.” Tara, the youngest of the family, always identified with the baby in her dead mother’s arms.

She reproduces her father’s chilling narration as the siege of the Weaver cabin was still going on:

 “They’re freedom fighters. They wouldn’t let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them.” Dad exhaled, long and slow. “The Feds surrounded the family’s cabin, kept them locked in there for weeks, and when a hungry child, a little boy, snuck out to go hunting, the Feds shot him dead.”

 No one spoke. Eventually Luke, who was twelve, asked if we could help. “No,” Dad said.

 “Nobody can. They’re trapped in their own home. But they got their guns, you can bet that’s  why the Feds ain’t charged in.”

The story of the siege by FBI agents and others is told in many versions, but the principle in all of them is you must prepare to defend your family against the government. The famed Wyoming trial lawyer Gerry Spence, who successfully defended Randy Weaver in a notorious trial, was compelled by his outrage at continued police shootings around the nation 20 years later to retell the story as Chapter 1 of his 2013 book, “Police State.”

“The Weaver case demanded change. It demanded that we remain vigilant and dedicated to restoring America to the land of the free and the home of the brave. But nothing has changed,” he says. The new rule of engagement became: “Kill any armed person, and Vicki (the mother) was armed, remember, armed with a baby. It is merely how one interprets the rule,” he says.

In its prolonged prosecution, Spence wrote, “the government lost no opportunity to broadcast its toxic propaganda—that the Weavers embraced religious beliefs that would be offensive to most of the jurors who’d be trying Randy Weaver. Never mind our constitutional right to freedom of religion. That right is mostly extended to those whose religion is substantially the same as mainstream America’s. Hanging out in a minority religion in America has been dangerous from the beginning. Ask the Indians.”

To which I would add, Ask the Mormons.

In the way Notre Dame is a Catholic university, BYU is a Mormon University. A bishop in that community, Provo, Utah, was the first to counsel Tara Westover when, due to intimidation in classes and lack of support from her hostile father, she considered dropping out. He got her a grant. Faculty members encouraged her unusual abilities. “My teacher said I had a knack for writing but that my language was oddly formal and stilted. I didn’t tell her that I’d learned to read and write by reading only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and speeches by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young,” she writes.

If educators are to disregard her story as an anomaly that does not refute the proposition that in order to learn everybody needs to be taught in a formal manner by competent people, then they will have to discard this too:  of the three Westover children who left home after the same unschooled upbringing, one brother earned a PhD in mechanical engineering and the other earned a PhD in chemistry. Tara Westover’s Cambridge doctoral thesis is entitled: “The Family, Morality, And Social Science in Anglo-American Cooperative Thought, 1813-1890.”