Educated by Tara Westover

UnknownEducated

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 Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith

247698 The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom

by Mary Griffith

As a parent who has been homeschooling for a little more than a year and has found herself unsettled on what path to take, I’ve become more and more curious about unschooling.  I bought this book hoping to get a better understanding of what “unschooling” means, how it’s generally done, and if it might be something I could see doing with my own kids.

Contrary to what probably a lot of people think (and what I thought before I set out to learn what unschooling actually is), unschooling does not mean to neglect one’s children’s education.  I suppose it could legitimately be called anti-schooling, in that the approach flies in the face of pretty much everything most of us have been conditioned to believe about how children should be educated, and it’s definitely antithetical to everything about conventional school.  The core belief that is the foundation of unschooling is that learning comes naturally and need not be forced; that given time, opportunity, and exposure, kids will learn what they need to learn in order to live fulfilling and productive adult lives.

The Unschooling Handbook is a good, solid intro to unschooling.  It’s chock full of anecdotes by both unschooling parents and unschooled kids of all ages.  There is lots of information on how an unschooling family might go about learning different subjects, what unschoolers generally worry about (math!), and how unschooled kids generally fare when it comes to college and careers (excellent!).  The book presents honest information about the ups and downs of homeschooling in general, and unschooling in particular.

Having read it, I feel a little more comfortable dipping our toes into this unconventional educational path.  How far we end up wading in remains to be seen, but I feel good about having read this book.

Highly recommend to anyone interested in alternatives to conventional education for their kids.

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.

One Good Year by Laura Brodie

51k9ql9RGhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One Good Year: A Mother and Daughter’s Educational Adventure

by Laura Brodie

I was eager to read this memoir about homeschooling, being that I have recently waded into the homeschooling waters myself.

Ten years ago, Laura Brodie decided to pull her ten-year old daughter, Julia, from public school in order to homeschool her.  The decision was made after much contemplation, and was based on Julia’s social, academic, and emotional difficulties with what seemed to be the institutionalized school setting itself.  A free spirit who related to animals better than humans, who bristled at the confinement of school, and whose mind tended to withdraw and wander to such an extent that focusing on schoolwork was a real problem, Laura decided to give her daughter a respite for her fifth grade year.  She hoped that a change of scenery for a year would give Julia a chance to regroup, refuel, and prepare for middle school.

There were certainly things in Brodie’s contemplation of homeschooling that I could relate to.

“Every child has a misery quotient, the line at which mere whining turns into real unhappiness . . . . And there’s nothing like homework to squash a child’s joy.  In Julia’s mind, homework was the shadow haunting every day, the shapeless dread that grew larger with each passing year.”

This very much sums up my decision to pull my own daughter from public school in order to homeschool her; the misery school was causing her wasn’t worth whatever benefits she was supposedly getting from the experience, and I finally decided to take matters into my own hands in the hope that I could turn things around for her.

I didn’t get very far into the book, however, before I found myself irritated with the author.  She scoffs at the propensity of parents to “grasp at straws of genius” in their children, but seems oblivious to her own tendency to do the same.  All three of her daughters are above average, apparently – at least in the author’s eyes.

Clearly, Julia had a unique intelligence churning inside her head . . .”

“I never did worry very much about Rachel, largely because of her intellectual gifts . . .”

And although I can’t locate the quote now, I believe her other daughter, Kathryn, was deemed “bored” with the academic aspect of school because she was so bright.

And, of course, Julia is a better violinist than any of her peers taking violin lessons.

This, too, rankled:

“The thought that in forty-nine states any parent who’d scraped through high school with a D average could then teach high school to their own children struck me as setting the bar very low.”

(As if letter grades are the only – or even the best – indication of ability and intelligence; as if there aren’t a million factors that might play into low grades in high school – from depression, to poverty, to various traumas, to illness, to instability of family life, and the list goes on and on – none of which are indicative of one’s ability to teach one’s own children.  This struck me as appallingly narrow-minded, and even elitist.  The author’s elitism continued to bother me; a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D., she clearly saw herself as more qualified to homeschool than the “average” parent, and had no qualms throwing around terms like “idiot” and “spelling moron,” and even calling her daughter a “dumbass” in a fit of temper – which she admittedly regretted, but, it seemed to me, more because name-calling isn’t nice and not because her terminology is disparaging to certain sectors of the population.  There was also a remark by her husband about the stigma of being held back a grade: “Being held back is one step above wearing a helmet.”)

It seemed to me that trouble started brewing as soon as Brodie and her daughter began that year of homeschooling.  When she describes how, “She and I had agreed that if her sisters were going to attend school from 8:30 to 3:00 every day, she would follow a similar routine . . . For the sake of sibling equality, we would find activities to fill six and a half hours each day,” it struck me how oblivious she seemed to the utter arbitrariness of a six-and-a-half hour school day, and the fact that much of that time is spent on classroom management and paper shuffling in “regular” school, and not on actual learning.  And what about meeting each child’s individual needs?  If she was going to base their school days on “sibling equality,” it seemed to me something important would be lost – namely, the meeting of Julia’s unique needs.

From the very beginning, Brodie sets stringent expectations for Julia, and from almost the beginning, tempers flare and mother and daughter clash again and again.  I wanted so badly to see Brodie just stop and take a deep breath and change tack – and eventually she does, sort of, but not until the spring when their year together is already drawing to a close.

I don’t know . . . I know myself to be an anal-retentive control freak, but Brodie made me feel like a lamb.  In the end, I don’t think that their year of homeschooling was any sort of “respite” for Julia.  Brodie acknowledges this when she says,

“Still, part of my goal in homeschooling had been to reduce Julia’s misery, and it seemed that over the past few months I had only managed to give her misery a new name.  I had granted her a break from traditional schooling, but not a respite from oppressive expectations.”

***

“In the end, our version of homeschooling had not escaped the worst aspects of school: the pressures of daily work, the crush of high expectations.”

Ten years later, I wonder what Julia would say about her homeschooling experience; I wonder how she feels that it benefited her, how it impacted her return to public school through her completion of high school, and how she feels it affected her relationship with her mother.

Brodie knows how to write (she’s an English Professor, after all), and thus her book is very readable, though I didn’t find it very relatable.  She makes a lot of good points:

On conventional school –

“The division of children’s attention into arbitrary time slots is an artifice established for the convenience of schools, and is not designed to match the development of the human brain.”

On motherhood and anger –

“There’s plenty of anger in American society, and some of it might require therapy, but if all moms had to consult a psychologist every time they blew their tops, most U.S. households would be bankrupt . . . Mothers were supposed to be endlessly loving and encouraging.  We were supposed to resemble Carol Brady or Shirley Partridge or June Cleaver, unfailingly good humored in the face of enormous exasperation.  Now, in the new millennium, I find those saccharine maternal stereotypes to be as unhealthy as Barbie’s grotesquely arched and tiptoed body.”

Still, the writing and the author seem to lack a measure of warmth, and that kept me at arm’s length.

Ultimately, I thought the title of this book to be misleading, because it doesn’t seem like their year of homeschooling was good; in the end, I see it as more a cautionary tale than anything else.