There are few things more quintessentially American—or fascinating to educated Americans—than the autodidact. The excitement around Monday’s kickoff event in the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum proved as much.
The headliner in the first installment of CMC’s signature Ath lecture series was Tara Westover, author, historian, and self-made intellectual, who descended from the mountains of remote northern Idaho at age 17, having survived, and surmounted, her survivalist parents’ minimalist idea of homeschooling.
Educated: A Memoir spent 32 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list, and Amazon named it the Best Book of 2018. Barack Obama and Bill Gates put it on the top of their reading lists.
The memoir recounts Westover’s astonishing journey from teaching herself math and grammar to earning her Ph.D. in intellectual history at Trinity College, Oxford.
The 33-year-old author opened her remarks with self-deprecating humor, describing herself as a “professional narcissist.”
Pivoting to her major theme—defining education—she likened it to electricity. “You don’t notice how fundamental it is to the way you live your life until the power is turned off,” she said. “You could say for the first half of my life, the power was turned off.”
She went on to define what an education is not.
“It’s not just job training. I worry that if we put so much pressure on education to solve problems that aren’t really pedagogical but social and political, it ceases to be education. The things that we keep are what make people of use to employers, and the things that we lose are what make them of use to themselves. Education has to be defended not just as a way of making a living but also as a way of making a person.”
During her 30-minute talk, Westover dispensed wisdom gleaned through deep reflection on her education-starved upbringing.
“Ignorance makes us foot soldiers for unworthy causes,” she offered. To illustrate the point, she recounted her outlandish, wrong-headed assumptions upon hearing about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement—both concepts she first encountered as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University.
Another Westover insight—“Nothing is more powerful than what you believe about yourself”—segued into the story of how she came to embrace feminism, considered a bad word in her family lexicon.
She ended by dwelling on the necessity of letting go.
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye,” she said, in reflecting on the good intentions and sincerely held beliefs underlying her father’s reckless parenting and the inevitability of family estrangement in the wake of her education-fueled personal journey.
“Love can be real,” she concluded, “and yet somehow not enough. Loving someone does not give you the power to change them.”
After delivering her prepared remarks, Westover responded to more than a dozen questions from CMC students. One senior asked for tips on how to subdue her deeply engrained careerist impulses. Another requested the keys to happiness.
“I’m not sure I’m happy,” Westover mused, “but I’m at peace.”
Other students asked about Westover’s “humility strategy,” her writing process, her thoughts on college inequality, and the abasement of vocational education.
After the Q&A session, students surrounded Westover to engage in one-on-one dialogue.
Thayer Breazeale ‘23 had already shared a tête-à-tête with the bestselling memoirist earlier in the evening.
“I felt really fortunate to be at the head table for my first Ath talk,” said Breazeale, a first-year from Wayzata, Minnesota, who is considering majors in philosophy, PPE, and psychology. Between mouthfuls of poached salmon and fluffy couscous, Breazeale had quizzed the memoirist about her favorite cartoon characters. (Westover chose Looney Tunes hero Bugs Bunny. While her survivalist family had no television, Westover can recall seeing the wascally wabbit at her grandmother’s house). On a more serious note, Westover told Breazeale about her discomfort when meeting strangers who know the intimate details of her life.
“She talked about going to a bar, and the bartender had read her book,” said Breazeale. Like that bartender, Breazeale has read Westover’s book and loved it. Finding himself casually chatting with its celebrity author—“just like any normal person”—was a surreal experience.
Athenaeum director Priya Junnar deemed Monday’s lecture a resounding success.
“For the kickoff event, we try to choose a speaker who will appeal to a broad swath of our campus community,” she said. “Tara came from such a personal perspective but was able to overlay that on complex issues—not just education but family matters, love, policy, economics. I think it was a fantastic event.”
Athenaeum fellow Laleh Ahmad ‘20, who emceed the evening, also praised Westover’s knack for engaging the diverse crowd.
“She managed to touch on themes that go beyond her book—like underrepresented communities and their access to education or the status of college humanities—in a way that is very relatable. I thought it was awesome.”