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The Question of Learning: Tara Westover versus the American Public School System

Darya Farah Foroohar

January 8th, 2020


When asked to consider an intellectually challenging question for my final summer assignment at Bard Manhattan (aka BHSEC), my high school, I didn’t quite know what to think. I was told by my ninth grade lit teacher never to sit around waiting for an idea, so I started reading books and hoped that a question would come naturally. Quickly, I was drawn to Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, in a way that the other books this summer did not attract me. Its style of writing pulled me in and made me care about the characters; it moved me and made me want to create writing that would move others; and, most importantly (at least for the purposes of this assignment), it presented ideas about education that were more liberating than what I’ve known at BHSEC. I didn’t realize what I was wondering until I had finished the book, at which point I began to think on it: what defines a “good education,” and what is it worth to get such a thing?


At BHSEC, education has always been more about seeming intelligent than actually putting in all the work to try to learn something new, something outside your comfort zone. When I say this, I don’t mean that the professors are not extremely dedicated to teaching their students not just how to accomplish a task on a given topic, but how to think; I don’t mean to say that all my peers never take classes that interest them because they are scared of how it will impact their GPA, or that my time at BHSEC hasn’t expanded my mind. I am immensely grateful for my learning here, but I believe it is possible to be grateful and also understand that a lot of the classes that I have taken, while challenging and relevant, create a stress culture that revolves around doing anything to get good grades, even if it means losing interest in those same classes. Especially now, as senior year starts and the college application process is in full swing, learning has shifted from being the end goal to being the means for a perfect GPA, with students stressing if they drop one point on an exam or losing sleep to scribble down the answers to homework they will forget about three hours after they turn it in. The futility of our situation has been in my mind for over three years now, but it wasn’t until I read Educated that I realized how ridiculous it is.


Westover, who spent the first 17 years of her life preparing for the end of the world, as dictated by her hyper-religious father, was not allowed to go to school. Her life was full of danger, whether it was avoiding being crushed by metal when working in her father’s junkyard or surviving the blows and insults of her violent older brother, whose behavior her parents would deny. In spite of such a repressive environment, though, her curiosity grew, especially after she watched another brother escape the life they lived on their mountain and go to college. Westover, having almost no knowledge of the outside world, managed to get into university, be accepted into post-grad programs at Cambridge and Harvard, and eventually receive her PhD from the former, all while dealing with familial pressure to replace her ideas of the world with theirs, a conflict that eventually resulted in her estrangement from certain immediate family members.


It certainly puts stress at BHSEC into perspective.


But I’m not writing this to make BHSEC students feel ashamed of their stress– quite the opposite, in fact. While Westover’s story did make me feel guilty for expending so much energy on minor homework problems or club meetings, it also inspired me by proving that I really didn’t have to. Even with all the turmoil in her life, Westover managed to learn, not for the sake of looking good or doing something with her education (though that is quite useful), but for the sake of learning. Many students wish they didn’t have to go to school because they feel pressured by the many responsibilities they have, but Westover, who was not allowed to go to school, wished the opposite. 


As I peered over her shoulder while she took art classes, went to lectures, and struggled with her first-ever homework assignments, I related to her stress levels and need to get a certain GPA, but was also thrilled by the possibility of studying whatever you want, just because it interests you. I had already known that a good education doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect 4.0 GPA or a 1600 SAT, but I was too scared to relax in school due to the immense stress I felt (and still feel) about the college process. Basically, I knew I should learn for the sake of learning in theory, but was disillusioned about actually trying it out in practice. Westover’s story had such an effect on me not because it taught me what a good education should be, but because it showed me that getting such an education and being able to attend your choice college is actually possible.


I’d like to consider myself intellectually curious. I hope my fellow students can say the same, but I know that all of us, curious or not, are constrained by the looming possibility of not going to a “good” college. And sure, maybe taking classes we know we’ll do well in, categorizing all our extracurriculars to fit our intended major, and staying up all night to study may get us into that college. But why go if we are unable to learn? Why go if we don’t want to?

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