Researching Education in America While Reading Educated

I used to stand by the fence and cry as the school bus went by.

I remember my grandma telling me about how her dad wouldn’t let her go to school. I don’t remember the details of where she was or how old, or even if she had attended any school at all, but I believe she went until eighth grade. I also remember how sad she sounded even as she talked about it decades later.

I was thinking of her words this week after reading Tara Westover’s Educated. After a bit of research, I think I must be right that she attended at least until eighth grade. My grandma was born in 1898, and about half of all students attended school. Until the 1940s and 1950s, many did not attend past grade school.

This chart shows percent of people completing only 8th grade, 12th grade and at least 4 years of college in 1940, 1960 and 1991.

In fact, many people didn’t even attend school at the turn of the 20th century. This graphic shows how overall school enrollment rates have increased from 1900 to 1991 for 5- to 19-year-olds. I chose these four dates to match up as closely as I could to the generations of my grandma, parents, me, and finally, Westover.

Overall school enrollment for 5 - 19 year-olds over time

Educated: A Memoir

You likely have heard of Westover’s story because of the fact that she didn’t attend school. She was raised in a large Mormon family by survivalists and father who didn’t trust the government.  Her father kept his children out of school. They were not homeschooled but made to work in his junkyard and with his mother as she prepared essential oils and served as an unlicensed midwife.educated book cover by tara westover

She was taught to distrust standardized medicine and even though the family often had serious injuries from car accidents, scrapping, and severe burns, they used mostly tinctures and salves to heal them. Westover and her siblings also experienced abuse by one brother.

When we see how common education has become over the years, it is shocking to hear of a person who is so cut off from the mainstream, and who doesn’t receive any education. In order to get out of the chaotic environment, one older brother taught himself calculus and went on to college and urged Tara to do the same. She did, studying for the ACT, teaching herself, and was accepted into Brigham Young University when she was only 17.

She had never attended a class, written a paper, or heard of many common historical events such as the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement. Others she would learn, such as standoffs in Waco or of the nearby Weaver Family at Ruby Ridge, had been filtered through her father’s eyes.

Almost unbelievably, she overcomes all these obstacles, even as she finds the other students at BYU to be too loose and immoral, calling them “gentiles” and not real Mormans. She eventually continues studying at numerous prestigious universities and even obtains her Ph.D.

She becomes like the most of us, a statistic. In my own family, we would have hopefully made my grandma proud, first with graduations from high school by her children, college graduations from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren who are obtaining advanced degrees, and who are or soon will be doctors.

In Westover’s family, three total siblings went on to advanced degrees. But in doing so, they were not praised by their parents. She writes how her parents and her other siblings have disowned her, not for her formal education, but for who she had become in the process:

“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.”

Though I don’t think I ever thought of education in those terms exactly, it seems like a noble goal to me. I would hope never to take the opportunity of education away from anyone.  The book made me appreciate all the chances I have been given to learn, even those I didn’t take that seriously. Now I can see that only a few generations ago things were very different.

Resource for Graphs: 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait

One last thing …

Vote for me for audience favorite! I’ve been named a non-fiction finalist in the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities Pen 2 Paper contest for Without a Net

Voting closes November 3.


Add Yours
  1. Liliana

    I have never heard of this book, but it is going on my reading list. It is sad that there are still cults out there that continue to perpetuate this to children. I am glad to hear she was able to move out and become successful.

    Thank you for sharing,

  2. Leiloni

    It is interesting how differentry things used to be. Shakespeare, and Dickens did not attend school past the primary years. I believe that it just goes to show that going too public schools is not the only way to be educated. I am interested in reading too his book myself now.

  3. Sherry

    Both my father and my husband’s attended school until grade 8. They were both born in 1934. “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.” That is one powerful quote that could be used to keep education going in a positive direction. I definitely have to check this book out!

  4. Kate Johnston

    This sounds like an interesting and poignant book. Education is so much more than “going to school.” I’m also interested in the fact that members of her family disowned her based on the person she had become. I’m glad to see that she was able to extricate herself from such a suffocating and turbulent environment.

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