Another Mormon Education

The first sentence Tara Westover writes in her engrossing memoir Educated is a disclaimer: “This story is not about Mormonism.” This is true in the same ...

The first sentence Tara Westover writes in her engrossing memoir Educated is a disclaimer: “This story is not about Mormonism.” This is true in the same way that René Magritte’s painting bearing the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is not about a pipe. The book is many things at once: a coming of age story, a family memoir, a well-paced tale of suspense and danger, and even a fairy tale with superhero elements. Less obvious to most readers, however, is just how deeply Mormon its story of education is.

Westover’s denial is intended to dissuade readers from finding the book merely a variation on the theme, beloved of 19th-century melodrama, of an innocent woman who is kidnapped by fanatical Mormon patriarchs but frees herself by grit, luck, and talent. Educated is a captivity narrative with a difference. Westover was held captive by a family, a religion, and a place. She also has great and conflicted attachment to all of them. One of the finest things about the book is the courage and eloquence of its ambivalence.

I recently spotted Educated in an Oslo bookstore, and its Norwegian title nicely captures the author’s balance sheet mode, translating to “Something Lost and Something Gained.” Westover never gives her odyssey—from the backwoods of southern Idaho to Cambridge PhD—an especially heroic cast. We are nowhere given to believe that her grad-school funk of binge-watching TV is somehow a superior mode of life to her earlier years spent removing gas tanks in junkyards. Westover fully knows the price of speaking out about the gaslighting and abuse that took place in her family. She can’t go home again.

Educated is decidedly not the old heroic tale of the young intellectual emerging into the light of modernity from a dank sectarian universe; that tale served many well, from Spinoza to John Dewey (whose words serve as an epigraph to the book), to generations of fierce intellects emerging from the shtetl. This, however, is a much more gnarled account.

Reviewers tend to treat Westover’s story as miraculous. They miss how classically Mormon it is. Rural-smart-kid-goes-to-fancy-university is a well-established cultural archetype, one present in my own family for several generations. Anytime anyone gets a PhD at any university it is a minor miracle, of course, and Westover’s path was more circuitous than most. But her book is a version of the classic Mormon story of the talented young person rising from obscurity to the highest levels. For Mormonism, such an ascent can go both ways—as affirmation or abandonment of the faith—and Westover fully wrestles with the profit and loss.


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Such poignant reckonings with modernity are, of course, by no means unique to Mormonism, but many of Westover’s twists are. For her, the bright lights, big city are found, comically, in Provo, Utah, where the provincial narrator’s roommates at Brigham Young University are more lax in their religious observance than she is (a well-known shock for matriculants at BYU). These roommates even include one who memorably wears shorts with the word “juicy” emblazoned across the bum! How are you going to keep them on the farm after they’ve seen Provo?

Undoubtedly, some of the wind that boosts the sails (sales) of this book comes from Westover’s status as an emissary from the strange worlds of rural white folk. But this book is not quite Hillbilly Elegy and shouldn’t be read as another anthropological glimpse at the red-state zoo. (Most American Mormons, by the way, despite often hard-core conservative politics, tend to be immigrant-friendly and vulgarity-hostile, and thus have mixed feelings about Trump, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s ongoing criticisms.)

The Westovers, to be sure, are no typical Mormon family. They are not a typical family of any kind! For one thing, there is an astonishing amount of violence and injury, reminding us that the farm rather than the factory is now the site of many of the worst industrial accidents in the US. The violence is decidedly not picaresque or cartoonish: this is not Don Quixote or Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. There is real, lasting, and horrific damage. Westover’s father is self-destructively cavalier about his and his family’s safety, and we read of car and motorcycle crashes, third-degree burns, premature babies, and an abusive but charismatic and intermittently penitent older brother. Westover’s Oprah-style up-from-abuse story is one reason for the book’s widespread resonance. It also fits a culture whose literature, starting with the Book of Mormon’s extended war scenes, has a violent streak.

Yet the Westover family is hardly off the grid economically, technologically, or even socially. They work in a postindustrial economy, dealing in junkyard bricolage and alternative medicine; they worship in a regular congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the church), and have an AOL account. Both parents spent some time at a university, and two of Westover’s siblings also received PhDs.

The family is, however, off the grid legally, educationally, and medically. Westover’s father is an anti-establishment rebel of the first order (but on the right rather than the left), waiting for the government to come after him and his family. No birth certificates, classrooms, or clinics for him. He is straight out of Moby-Dick: Ahab-like in his maimed antinomian intensity, intelligence, and monomania, dragging everyone around him into his crazed schemes by the charismatic force of his personality. Like Ahab, his DIY ethic looks like Emersonian self-reliance gone berserk. Self-reliance is a common term in Mormon talk, but Westover’s father restores the full Promethean vibe Emerson had in mind.

What is most striking about Westover’s story is how it encapsulates so much of Mormon history.

For Mormons, it is almost normative to hurtle from nowheresville to the global stage. Indeed, the church’s founder, Joseph Smith—born in Sharon, Vermont, in 1805, to impoverished parents—was, by the time of his assassination in 1844, both the leader of a thriving religious movement and a presidential candidate.

Smith had a spotty formal education but was obsessed with learning. One of his key sayings was “The glory of God is intelligence” (later adopted as a motto by BYU). Few religions are as obsessively invested in education. Not every Latter-day Saint studies at Harvard or Cambridge, but stories of such people are pervasive. Among the top 15 leaders of the Church are men with advanced degrees from Duke, Harvard (two), Oxford, Purdue, Stanford, Utah (two), and Yale.

What is most striking about Westover’s story is how it encapsulates so much of Mormon history. Her own journey recapitulates the movement’s transition, around roughly 1890–1920, from communalist outlaws—suspicious of the federal government, experimenting with novel forms of familial and economic organization in the Rocky Mountains—to all-American strivers.

Even her interest in liberalism—rather than the fancier and more neurotic forms of intellectual inquiry on offer in the humanities—is a distant mirror of the mode of thought embraced by early 20th-century Mormon progressives emerging from their isolation in the Great Basin.

One way that Mormons managed this transition was via higher education. Since the late 19th century, they have used the university as a site for identity formation and advancement, as Thomas W. Simpson convincingly argues in American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940. Universities tolerate and often foster outsiders and provide abundant intellectual, networking, and economic opportunities. Of course, many minorities have used the university as a springboard, but Mormons did so to an uncanny degree—and still do.

In my own family history, which is more academic than most, the story of rural origins / elite university has been lived again and again. My great-grandfather, John Andreas Widtsoe, was born on a remote island in Norway and, in 1882, when he was 10, emigrated to Utah with his brother and widowed mother. They settled in Logan, which sits in the same valley where Westover grew up, albeit 40 miles northward and a century later. My great-grandfather entered Harvard in 1892, in the first wave of young Mormon scholars going to elite universities. After graduating, he was the first Mormon to get a PhD (from Göttingen, in Germany) and went on to a distinguished career as a biochemist, university president, and church leader. (His brother also studied at Harvard, before teaching English at the University of Utah.)

My grandfather, G. Homer Durham, who married Widtsoe’s daughter Eudora, was born in Parowan, Utah—an even more obscure spot. He recalled using dried cow pies as a discus in imaginary Olympic Games with his siblings. You can’t get more mythically rustic than that. He received the second PhD given by UCLA and had a distinguished career as a political scientist and university president. Homer and Eudora’s daughter Carolyn married John M. Peters (they are my parents). John grew up in Brigham City, Utah, and became a professor of epidemiology at Harvard and, later, USC.

By the time it got to me, and my son, also a professor, the rural narrative had worn off but the romance with higher education had not. What is most distinct about Westover’s tale isn’t her education, but her gender (even so, there are oft-told tales of Mormon pioneer women off to get their MDs in the 1870s and 1880s), and, of course, the abuse and violence.

Many minorities have used the university as a springboard, but Mormons did so to an uncanny degree—and still do.

My brief genealogy shows a variety of paths Mormons could take through the university. For my father, as for Westover, it was a road out of the Church. For my grandfather and great-grandfather, by contrast, higher education was a way to contribute to the kingdom of God. Attend any Mormon congregation in a university town and you’ll meet lots of young strivers zealously working at their graduate studies, just as you’ll hear sermons warning of the dangers of relying on worldly wisdom.

The ambiguities of assimilation are nicely treated in Jana Riess’s The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church, which presents the often confirmed but still counterintuitive finding that, for Mormons, a college education increases religious orthodoxy. For this community, higher education on the whole strengthens religious commitment, even if their approach to learning tends to be more pragmatic than critical.

Riess’s book reports on a massive and probing survey of a generation of Mormons and is presented as an appealing combination of statistics and individual stories. In the long, sly tradition of social science, the book is in part a set of policy nudges clothed as an objective analysis. It almost reads as a briefing for those highly educated leaders about the challenges facing the Church in its effort to remain relevant in a time of Facebook, pride celebrations, and shifting political attitudes. It offers a snapshot of Mormonism at a transition point today, one that could be as monumental as the one that occurred around 1900.

Mormonism is notoriously hard to read. Each unveiling leaves plenty of mystery in place—lots of asterisks and commentary. Westover’s initial denial at least leads with the problem! She was well educated in the arts of denial; though her family’s mode of scriptural hermeneutics was warped, its seriousness was a great preparation for university success, in the same way that Talmud study has been for modernizing Jews. (Westover’s father, in fact, criticized Educated, saying she should have given her homeschooling more credit. In a sense, he’s right: clearly the family’s home life at least encouraged both a ferocious autodidacticism and the most probing reading possible.)

Many readers seem awed that an Idaho Mormon would be studying modern political thought at the very highest levels, but what better training could there be for reading John Stuart Mill (as Westover did for her dissertation) than reading Joseph Smith (who was born a year before Mill)? Westover’s memoir, like her academic research, is centrally about the question of how to make history when the records and memories of different participants disagree so sharply. And yet there is no more fundamental question in the Mormon tradition than that of testimony and witness—the question of who gets to speak for the dead, and who gets to speak for the living.

It is also not a surprise that Westover became a historian, the hegemonic Mormon humanistic calling. (By loose measures, I am the sixth in seven generations so far of Mormon historians. My case is not entirely typical, but it’s not aberrant either.) The Book of Mormon is named for Mormon, a historian. Every member of the church is supposed to write a “personal history.” Every congregation annually turns in a “history” of the past year to church headquarters. For Mormons, the salvation of the entire human family depends on the kinds of records we keep on earth; and, of course, the Church itself possesses the biggest genealogical database in the world.

In a moment when winds blow against higher education right and left, one of the great things about Educated is its unabashed hunger and thirst for learning, and its poignant sense of the cost learning can exact. The Book of Mormon makes political thought, reading, books, and the history of modern times a question of life and death. Westover reads in a way I see only occasionally among my students but I recognize immediately as one I also learned in reading Mormon scripture: reading with a hunger for wisdom, with a sense of the potentially infinite cosmic stakes. To that I say, amen!


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Members of the BYU Board of Trustees, including Susa Young Gates (fifth from left) and Board President Heber J. Grant (fourth from right), at a 1920s commencement. Courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University