I just finished a wonderful book that everyone should read: Educated by Tara Westover.
It is the true story of a Mormon girl from rural Idaho who grew up in a survivalist family with parents who mistrusted authority so much that they refused to send their children to school, never vaccinated them and would treat them at home when they were ill, even when they had very serious and life-threatening injuries.
Despite that horrific childhood, Westover managed to attend university at 17, working so hard that she eventually went to Cambridge and Harvard Universities. The book has sold over two million copies worldwide.
The best books are those that talk about universal human values. Westover’s book will resonate with many of us. We will recognize the conservative background she comes from and realize that we’re not the only people like that. And we might learn something from that indomitable human resilience and spirit that manages to overcome the most unimaginable odds and make something of themselves.
But the most important message in the book is the importance of education. Westover recalled that when she went to university, she attended a class on Shakespeare because she “had heard of the word” but in fact didn’t know anything about him or what he wrote.
She had never heard of Islam until Sept 11 happened. She didn’t know how to write essays or even why people bathed with soap. But through sheer determination and hard work, she ended up with a doctorate from Harvard.
Westover’s thesis about education is that you need it to enlarge your world, that without it, you will believe that the entire world is what is immediately around you and that every human being is just like you. You will think that everyone thinks like you.
Education, done the right way, opens up your mind to the vast expanse of the universe and the limitless knowledge within it. It makes you understand and appreciate how things work, what motivates people to do what they do. If you get the right sort of education, it should make you both curious about many things and also empathetic towards other people.
To be sure, not all so-called educated people have minds that are open to the possibilities of this world of ours. That’s perhaps because our definition of education is so limited. We often think that because we have a certificate we can put on the wall, we are “educated”. That’s such a common assumption that people will go to great lengths to get fake degrees to give themselves that veneer of prestige.
But it’s always bemused me that while everybody grumbles constantly about getting places in our universities, nobody actually questions the quality of education they are getting. I really do think the fact that we’re such an uncurious people says a lot about the type of education we are getting. How is it that there are so few in-depth studies on the very many social issues we face?
Ask any recent graduate what books they have read, outside their required course reading lists. Indeed, ask their teachers what they have been reading. Have they been reading to expand their minds or just because they have to pass exams?
But ultimately if you at least know how to read, you will, with some encouragement, grow to enjoy reading books, even very long ones. If the story is absorbing enough, books are far more satisfying than reading Whatsapp messages or even articles online.
Witness how kids plough through the entire Harry Potter series, regardless of how many pages each volume is. When you start trying to ration the pages of a book you’re reading because you don’t want it to end, you know you’re on to a good one.
Back to education. Let us reassess what we define as education. When we do, we’ll find that we really have not been educating our people much at all, especially when we see that we have so many literalists but not literate people in our midst. How else do we explain the amount of rubbish that is believed and circulated on social media?
Education has become ideological instead of something fundamental for all human beings, indeed a basic human right. When someone can’t even do the sort of basic research to check when particular stamps are issued, you know they have had no education. When someone thinks privilege and position trumps any sort of hard work, then their lack of educational foundation is telling.
If we don’t do anything drastic about our education system soon, chiefly if we don’t ensure our children are educated in the true sense of the word, then we can expect to lose out in the world.
Our children need to be exposed to the sciences and the humanities not just for the knowledge, but for their own personal development. It’s important to know geography so that we understand that the world is big. It’s equally important to understand the history of the world so that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Everybody needs to know science as it affects every aspect of our lives.
There’s nothing to be proud of when we only know the names of celebrities and brand names. When we are disrespectful to elders just because we are born into privilege, it not only betrays the lack of wisdom that comes from a limited education but also a dysfunctional upbringing.
We’d better do something quick for the sake of our children.