Educated by Tara Westover


by Tara Westover

I hadn’t planned on reading this book, mainly because I have a weird aversion sometimes to anything that gets a lot of hype, and this one has been sweeping best seller lists and social media for a while.  I also read enough about the book to know that it had to do with a woman who was “homeschooled,” and not in a good way, and being a homeschooling parent myself, I’m a little weary of all the stories out there about bad things that happen in homeschooling families that are misguidedly blamed on homeschooling itself.  In any case, I ended up reading it because it was chosen by my book club for this month.

So, if you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about Educated, it’s a memoir about the author’s experience growing up in rural Idaho with parents who are fundamentalist Mormons, survivalists waiting for what they believe are the End Days, and not a little off their rockers.  Westover believes that her father is bi-polar, and perhaps even paranoid schizophrenic, though, because he is utterly anti-medical establishment, he’s never been diagnosed as anything.  Either of those diagnoses seem plausible, and it’s hard to say about Westover’s mother, who seems more manipulative than anything else.

Westover grew up the youngest of seven children, and she didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old, when she decided she wanted to go to college despite her complete lack of even a hint of formal education.  To say that she was homeschooled is misstating the reality that she was mostly neglected (and abused, both physically and emotionally).  She did know how to read, but the only books she was exposed to growing up were the bible, the Book of Mormon, and an old history book her father had in the house that described slavery as a terrible institution – for the slave owners.

Her father owned a junkyard and made his living selling scrap from the junkyard, and doing construction.  His goal was for his family to become completely self-sufficient for when The End came; the family stockpiled home canned food, ammunition, and even had massive amounts of gasoline buried on their property.  The kids had “head for the hills bags” which were at the ready for when The End came, which would be prefaced with an attack by government officials (this vision had to do with the real life events at Ruby Ridge, which Westover’s father somehow twisted in his mind in a way that somehow had to do with them).  Westover’s mother worked as a midwife/healer.  She made her own salves, tinctures, oils, and homeopathic medicines that the family relied on for income and for their own medical needs – including terrible injuries that resulted from car accidents, junkyard accidents, fires, and explosions.  The children were expected – no, forced – to help with the junkyard and construction businesses, as well as making medicines.

Westover’s upbringing was filled with violence.  Her father repeatedly exposed the family to horribly dangerous situations which he justified with his faith in the Lord, and Westover’s older brother was especially violent and physically and emotionally abusive.

When Westover was 16, she decided she wanted to go to college so she could learn about music – perhaps be a church music director at some point.  Her desire to get a formal education created a wedge between her and her parents who were adamantly against formal education and believed school to be a favorite haunt of the devil, but Westover made up her mind to teach herself enough algebra and grammar to pass a college entrance exam and be accepted to BYU when she was 17.  From there, she ultimately won a scholarship to Cambridge and attended Harvard where she earned a Ph.D.  It was during her time at Harvard that she became estranged from her parents and most of her siblings – not because she pursued formal education (which ultimately led to her examination and rejection of the religious beliefs she had been raised with), but because she reached out to her parents about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her older brother, and her parents rejected her version of events.  In interviews, Westover has referred to it as being gaslighted by her parents.

Purely as a piece of writing, Educated is very well written.  It’s thoughtful and articulate and deep.  It’s a good book, and a good story.  At times I felt that it was a bit repetitive and long, but still, a very good book.

I relate to the author quite a bit.  While I didn’t grow up with fanatical religious parents, I did grow up in a very toxic environment that ultimately led to my estrangement from my family, which has gone on for almost 20 years now.  So I very much relate to the damage one suffers as a result of being a vulnerable child at the mercy of violent, abusive bigger people, and I very much relate to the feelings of loss one carries around because of family estrangement.

I did find myself feeling a little frustrated, and even disdainful, at Westover’s willingness to keep going back for more abuse from her family, and also her generosity towards her parents in expressing her belief that they are good people, that they loved their children and did their best.  I have a hard time seeing it that way.  Her father was reckless, abusive, and even sadistic at times, and her mother neglectful, disingenuous, and manipulative.

I also felt frustrated at the portrayal – intentional or not – of both homeschooling and homebirth/midwifery as “fringe” institutions.  As someone who has engaged in both, it bothers me that both of those things are still widely seen as “crazy,” dangerous, etc.  They’re both valid and safe options when approached with knowledge and care, but no doubt many people will read this book and have their worst suspicions about homeschooling and homebirth confirmed.

I went with a friend to a literary lecture last night and Tara Westover was the speaker.  It was fascinating seeing her in the flesh and listening to her talk about some of her experiences and about the writing of her book.  For everything she has experienced and accomplished, she’s actually very young: 32.  One thing she talked about that struck me was that she doesn’t want her story to be seen as one of triumph over adversity, that she’s averse to narratives of people overcoming and achieving through pure grit, because the reality is that it always takes help in one form or another in order for anyone to accomplish goals and overcome hurdles.  So true.

Something else she talked about that resonated with me was how the first version of ourselves given to us by our families does not have to be the final version of ourselves.  This may seem simplistic on its face, but there is a deep truth to this, and isn’t it liberating to know that we can always continue to learn and grow and evolve?

Westover poses a profound question, which really is at the heart of her memoir: What is one to do when one’s obligations to family come into conflict with one’s obligations to oneself?

Educated is an extremely thought-provoking book.

The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis

41tG-7btZ+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups

by Erika Christakis

Maybe you’ve already seen this hardcover book, released earlier this month, at Barnes & Noble.  I saw it there, both on the “New Releases” table at the front of the store, and in the Parenting/Childcare section.  I’ll take this as an indication that the book is enjoying some decent publicity, and that the publisher hopes to make this a staple in the literary niche pertaining to child rearing and education.  Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from a publicist at Viking/Penguin asking me to read and review it, which I agreed to do.  I am not being compensated for this review; these are my genuine thoughts.

Adding to the growing body of research and literature that decries the current state of public/conventional education in the U.S., The Importance of Being Little homes in on preschool and kindergarten.  Drawing on anecdotes from various sources, her own personal experiences as a preschool teacher (and parent), as well as plenty of research, Christakis, who is backed by impressive credentials in the field of child development, methodically explains how modern preschools and kindergarten programs and classrooms are largely counterproductive to how young children actually learn and thrive.  We focus far too much on academics in younger and younger children, overwhelm them with far too much external stimuli, “adultify” them, and fail to trust that children are not only wired, but eager to learn – it need not be directed and forced at such tender ages (I am witnessing this in my own three-year old right now).  What little kids need most in order to cultivate a love of learning is warm, responsive relationships with the adults in their lives (the author is specifically referring to their caregivers and teachers), freedom to be curious and explore, and, really, for grown-ups to get out of the way of their natural inclination to learn joyfully.

This book reminds me very much of Vicki Abeles’s Beyond Measure in its deconstruction of current methods and mindsets, and ideas about innovations and changes that could and should be made to contemporary educational models in order to nurture children’s minds, bodies, and hearts, except that The Importance of Being Little focuses on preschool and kindergarten, while Beyond Measure focuses on older elementary, middle, and high school.  The fact is, though, that there needs to be a major shift in how we do all school.  If an educational revolution doesn’t happen across all grades, we will continue to fail our children.  We can, and should, do better.

This is an excellent book.  Whether enough people will read it, and others like it, and begin to take our educational crisis seriously – and I don’t mean low academic rankings, I mean the education system’s place in the development of the whole child – remains to be seen.


Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles

51xuPFNA3-L._AC_UL320_SR212,320_ Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation

by Vicki Abeles

If you’ve never seen the documentary Race to Nowhere and you are either a parent with kids in public school currently or kids who will be in public school in the future, or an educator, you need to see it.  Race to Nowhere came out a couple of years ago and it’s a well-researched expose on the state of modern education in America, and what it’s doing to our kids.

Beyond Measure is a follow-up book (there is also a film, which is not yet available for general viewing), written by the creator of Race to Nowhere.  Beyond Measure, too, is a further expose of today’s educational climate – with the extreme focus on testing and ranking and achievement and competition and resume-building – chock full of statistics, data, and anecdotes.  It’s very much a wake up call: something’s got to give, because we are making our kids sick; we are cultivating a generation of stressed out, depressed, disengaged kids who are terrified of failure or risk, and who don’t know what they’re truly interested in or passionate about because their whole lives have been so structured, guided, and micromanaged.

I can vouch for the reality of this gloom and doom prophesy, as I watched my own brilliant kid crash in high school.  There is not much that can compare with watching your child suffer such mental and emotional anguish.

Beyond the grim data, however, Beyond Measure offers hope.  Abeles has tirelessly traveled the country visiting schools and interviewing educators and administrators who DO see the damage being done to our youth, and who DO want to effect real change.  There are numerous schools across the U.S. that are implementing positive changes, big and small, in an effort to turn things around before it’s too late.

It would be wonderful if every parent and educator read this book and took it to heart.  I keep thinking that I should buy a couple of extra copies and give them to our elementary school principal (who is all about the numbers and not very much about the actual children) and our Superintendent.  I keep thinking that if they only read this, they would see the light and start making changes.  But the truth is, I’m not that hopeful.  I feel like our particular school district is too far gone – too entrenched in everything that is wrong with public education today, from academic expectations that are developmentally inappropriate, to unreasonable homework expectations, to withholding recess as a punishment, to supporting and defending Common Core and all the attending standardized testing.

Change, if it is to happen on a large scale, nationwide, will happen so slowly and incrementally that it will be years and years before this mess is turned around.  I can’t wait that long, which is why I’ve turned to homeschooling.

In any case, Beyond Measure is an excellent read, and really is a must read for all parents and educators.

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Unknown Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

by Peter Gray

I’m still digesting this book, and plan to write on my other blog about how it’s affected my views about schooling, and how it’s impacting my thoughts on how to move forward in my own homeschooling endeavors, but for now I’m going to try to share some general thoughts about the book and its premises.

Free to Learn was recommended to me by a friend when I put out a request on Facebook for suggestions of books about unschooling.  I immediately ordered it from Amazon and spent the next week devouring it, highlighter in hand.

In a nutshell, the basic message of Free to Learn is that kids learn best by being left alone by adults.  That is not to say that children should not be cared for, nurtured, and provided for by adults, but we, as a society, have gotten to a point of believing that adults must direct every aspect of our children’s lives, including their learning.  For some reason we went from trusting children and believing them to be competent and having faith that their natural curiosity would serve as a strong enough drive to lead them down the paths of learning what they need to know, to believing that children are inept blobs of clay who must be molded into desirable shapes, and who can’t or won’t accomplish anything of use without supervision, direction and coercion by adults.

You really can’t help but see that this is the model of conventional schools.

The whole idea of compulsory schooling, with its compulsory subjects that must be learned in prescribed ways at prescribed ages (prescribed by anonymous adults who are far, far removed from classrooms), with its grouping children together by age rather than by interest or desire to be grouped together, with its never-ending ranking, grading, comparing, testing, rewarding, and doling out of consequences, with its adherence to conformity – all of these things that characterize pretty much every neighborhood public school fly in the face of how children actually learn best.  By sucking all the joy out of learning for learning’s sake and instead making learning a means to an end (a good grade, a gold star, an award, something to put on a college application), we are failing our children.  Rates of depression, anxiety, and cheating in school have skyrocketed, and we’re raising kids who increasingly don’t have any idea how to run their own lives and make their own decisions, let alone take responsibility for the direction their lives may take, face adversity, and learn and grow from their mistakes.

The key to real learning, posits Peter Gray, is a childhood full of free play, and a democratic model of education.  What this translates to is that children should be given as much freedom as is safe and reasonable (and those are subjective, and therefore raise plenty of questions about what is safe and reasonable) to direct their own learning, to interact and form friendships with people outside of their own age groups, to explore, experiment, and just play – and adults need to back off and trust that the kids will be alright if we stop managing their every waking moment.

So much of this struck a deep chord in me.  I absolutely see the truth of all of it.  The problem is making the leap to applying these principles in real life when you’ve become so entrenched in the “conventional” way of doing things.  While I absolutely see the wisdom and truth of what Gray sets forth, I’m having a very, very difficult time actually thinking about what it would be like to let go and give my kids the reins.

Two criticisms I have: on some level, this book feels like a giant advertisement for the Sudbury Valley School and its offshoots.  Sudbury schools are democratic schools in which the students direct and take complete responsibility for their own education.  I can’t imagine that it’s not wonderful, and that it doesn’t instill in kids a myriad of things that conventional schools can’t or won’t.  My problem with the endorsement, though, lies in the fact that Sudbury schools are private, tuition-based schools, and although they are apparently less expensive than a lot of conventional private schools, they’re still not cheap, and many, many families – especially those with multiple kids – just cannot afford to pay tuition to send their kids to school.  Further, relatively speaking, there aren’t a whole lot of these schools.  The numbers are growing, but it’s not like you can find one in every neighborhood, so most families will have to commute at least some distance, and this isn’t practical or even feasible for a lot of families.

The other thing is that I wish this book, and other books that discuss alternative educational paths for children, talked about how these methods might apply to a-typical kids (i.e., kids with disabilities).  I feel like just about every book or article out there that discusses all the wonderful ways in which children can be educated and reared outside of conventional standards are really talking about “typical” kids.  How do kids with intellectual disabilities fit into all of this?  Nobody really seems to want to delve into that in any depth, and that’s a disappointment.

In any case, I think this book is a must read for anyone who has kids or plans to have kids.  Seriously, a must read.

Children of the Core by Kris Nielsen

51b3onsmfnl-_sy300_-1 Children of the Core
by Kris Nielsen

If you’re a parent of school-aged children in the U.S., you’ve probably heard of Common Core by now.  What is Common Core, and why is it so controversial?

Common Core is a set of educational standards for grades K – 12 that has thus far been adopted by forty-four U.S. states.  The Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI) sets forth what children across America should learn at each grade level in mathematics and English/language arts, with the end goal of ensuring that every child in the country graduates from high school “college and career ready.”

It sounds really good on the surface.  But there are many problems with Common Core and the associated standardized testing, and there is a growing body of educators and parents who see Common Core as a very bad thing for kids, schools, and teachers.  There are many people who believe that anything will be better than No Child Left Behind – an initiative that has resulted in “drill and kill” teaching, teaching to the test, and students who memorize facts only to do well on the standardized tests they are pressured to perform well on because their teachers’ jobs and the future of their schools depend on their test scores.  There are others who see CCSI as NCLB on steroids.

Kris Nielsen is a former teacher whose letter of resignation to his school district went viral in 2012.  Nielsen is intimately familiar with Common Core from an educator’s perspective, and has written this book, Children of the Core, to caution parents and offer advice on how a peaceful resistance can be staged in order to prevent Common Core from taking over the U.S. education system before it’s too late.

It sounds alarmist and the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but there actually are some truths about Common Core that every parent should question and be concerned about.  Children of the Core is very eye-opening, and I’ll be using it to provide some talking points when I meet with my school district’s superintendent next week to discuss Common Core in our district.