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What Makes an Education

Two contrasting memoirs about education reveal meritocracy is a myth.

We have a myth about the power of education. No matter who you are, it goes, if you do well in school, you can be anything you want to be. Education is the golden ticket to upward social mobility and financial security: “In America, the son of a shoe salesman can grow up to be president.” The historical reality has always been that this myth applied more to certain populations than others: if you were white, if you were male, if you were rich. Now, as we struggle with skyrocketing college costs and public school disinvestment, this myth is as unattainable as ever. But what does it look like when education works the way we say we want it to? Is this a myth worth aspiring to?

In their blockbuster memoirs, both published in 2018, Tara Westover and Casey Gerald reach radically different conclusions about this myth. They each come from troubled, marginalized backgrounds but catapult to the pinnacles of education and eventually comfort and material security: In this way, they are both models of this particular American Dream. However, while Westover credits her elite education with saving her, Gerald believes education ruined him. I will let you guess which memoir ended up on President Obama’s Summer Reading list that summer.

The contrasts between Westover’s Educated and Gerald’s There Will Be No Miracles Here show that even when our education system “works,” it may be working all wrong.

While the authors lived drastically different childhoods, these memoirs share some commonalities. For one, they are tales of the Millennial experience: Tara Westover was born in 1986 and Casey Gerald in 1987. Both authors also grow up in often misunderstood parts of our country where they face serious barriers to accessing quality education. Westover is raised in a far-right, survivalist Mormon family in the Idaho mountains, where her father forbids her from attending school (at 17, she enrolls at Brigham Young University against his wishes) and discourages the family from relying on modern medicine and technology. At home, Westover is subject to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her violent brother Shawn (a pseudonym) and her reckless father, whom she now suspects suffers from mental illness. Gerald is Black and comes from a poor Dallas neighborhood where he is raised by relatives and then his older sister, while his parents struggle with drug dependency, incarceration, and possible mental illness. Despite these challenges, Gerald nonetheless excels both in academics and particularly in football. In the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity, both memoirists make the rags-to-riches leap. Westover leaves to earn a doctorate in history at Cambridge University in England. Gerald obtains an undergraduate degree from Yale and later, a business degree from Harvard.

I must admit that while reading Educated, I felt gripped, touched, and even strangely validated. Westover’s memoir is a recognizable tale of perseverance and grit, of an almost-lost girl made good, of education as self-realization. It is a story so seductive that I did not notice what it missed until I read There Will Be No Miracles Here.

Gerald’s memoir shines a fluorescent light into the shadows of Westover’s narrative, revealing what is personally sacrificed by the people we make the symbols of our education myth. His is the coming-of-age tale of a young Black man who experiences a profound loss of self after being used and muffled by his education, only to be held up as one of its successes. Gerald’s memoir doesn’t have a lot of answers, but it accurately diagnoses the cynicism of an education system that, at its best, aspires to assimilate poor and disenfranchised individuals into the powerful classes, largely by requiring them to distance themselves from the realities and struggles of their upbringing and homes. Westover’s memoir has been championed by powerful people like Obama and Bill Gates because it feeds the fantasy that the best and brightest have it figured out, and that people from institutionally ignored and disadvantaged populations need simply to adopt the values of the ruling class to be fulfilled, to be self-actualized, to be “educated.” For Westover, education empowers her to “remake” herself into “a changed person, a new self.” Gerald is much more skeptical of the “self” created in the course of his education: “It had taken nearly every day to turn the boy that I had been into the man that I became, a dead man.” How do these memoirists walk away with such different interpretations of the American Dream?

Compare, for instance, how the two writers describe and relate to the people from their old worlds. For Gerald, one example is Mauricio, his fifth-grade classmate. In fifth grade, as his parents become less a consistent presence in his life, Gerald learns to negotiate his increasingly chaotic reality by “identify[ing] who was in charge, find[ing] out what they want, giv[ing] it to them immediately.” In one such instance, he misunderstands an assignment to write a speech and, to the delight of his teacher, writes, memorizes, and delivers the speech from memory to his class. (His talents as an orator have carried into his adulthood successes and can be independently verified on YouTube.) Looking back, Gerald sees the role that his obedience to authority plays in this story: “[W]hen I was a child I did not speak much,” he writes, “and then, one night, in slavish fear, I got my homework so wrong that it was perfect. And that made all the difference. Or enough.”

Mauricio, on the other hand, has not completed his homework assignment. Dispirited, Mauricio lies down in the middle of the road with the intent to remain there until he is run over by a car. The plan fails, and Mauricio is returned safely to the classroom, where he is chastised for not having his assignment. What is unusual about how Gerald frames the discovery of his own talent is that he refuses to forget the unpredictable cauldron in which his treasure is forged. While he is “saved” by the attentions and encouragement of his teachers, Gerald  wonders whether Mauricio’s actions were a more appropriate response to the “strangeness” of both their lives. Reflecting on this moment, he writes:

…young Mauricio, who might have had the right idea all along, was struck with the paddle and doused with medication and, I bet, given another chance to try fifth grade—while I, his mad submissive counterpart, toed the line so well and for long that somewhere along the way somebody said I had a gift—a gift!—when what I had was more of a sickness…Two mad boys and too much strangeness, one reformed, one revolting.

Gerald’s deep empathy with Mauricio highlights the absurdity of their disparate treatments: Mauricio acts truthfully, consistent with how Gerald himself is feeling, and is punished; Gerald, because he acts “slavishly” and “submissively,” because he denies the turmoil and uncertainty in his life, is rewarded.

While Gerald yearns for more humane treatment for both himself and Mauricio, Westover’s education seems to alienate her from the pain of her youth. Growing up in a patriarchal household, Westover learns as a child to define her worth in terms independent of her gender. However, as she becomes an adolescent and increasingly “female” in ways that are hard to deny, she becomes a target of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her controlling older brother Shawn. The abuse ranges from calling her a whore and pushing her head into the toilet to nearly breaking her arm in one particular outburst, while most of her family feigns ignorance or suggests that the abuse was warranted. Reflecting on one particular altercation, Westover describes with great insight the tortured mental state that Shawn’s abuse put her in:

Suddenly that worth felt conditional, like it could be taken or squandered. It was not inherent; it was bestowed. What was of worth was not me, but the veneer of constraints and observances that obscured me.

I find this a particularly affecting articulation of female adolescence (and beyond), hardly restricted to the experience of a fringe Mormon family in Idaho: the policing, derision, and punishment of the dress, behavior, interests, etc. of women are classic hits in the dominant culture as well, though the adult Westover does not explore these connections. Heartbreakingly, Westover looks to her abusive brother Shawn to help her: “He knew about worldly women, so I asked him to keep me from becoming one.” Her explanation of the complicated relationship between her learned lack of self-worth as a girl and the abuse perpetrated by her brother and accepted by her family and herself is sharp and convincing.

How puzzling it is, then, to watch her back away from it later, as she attempts to help the women still subject to Shawn’s abuse and her own family’s indifference. During a visit home from her master’s program at Cambridge, Westover recalls the night that Shawn’s wife Emily runs to Westover’s parents after Shawn throws her into a snowbank and locks her out of their trailer. Westover sees herself in Emily. Unlike Gerald, however, she seems to have lost all insight into the complexity of being subjected to Shawn’s violence in the world of her childhood. Looking at Emily, Westover concludes:

What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood. What was needed–what Emily needed–was a woman emancipated from pretense, a woman who could show herself to be a man. Voice an opinion. Take action in scorn of deference. A father.

What a strange solution, in a 300-plus-page book by this extremely accomplished woman who has spent her adult life working to free herself from the same physical and psychological shackles, from the very same man within the same family dynamic. By the end of the memoir, Westover has moved across the Atlantic and broken off contact with the majority of her family to foster and protect her sense of self. By her own account, Westover is able to free herself from the power of the male authority figures who oppressed her in part because she is now armed with an elite education and the accompanying new worldview, one that has exposed her to healthy relationships and has made therapy accessible to her. Why then does she think that the solution to Emily’s emancipation is either imitating manhood or finding a new male authority figure? (Relatedly, why is she resistant to reading second-wave feminists, whose works might grant her even greater insight into domestic violence as a larger political issue?) 

The memoirists also consider power in starkly contrasting ways. Gerald sees it everywhere and is tormented by it, in its exercise by other people and by himself. Westover, on the other hand, seems oblivious to power structures. Power courses through her story without a nod. It is not noted when her brother Tyler, already in university, writes her college application for her. Nor is it explicitly acknowledged when Cambridge rejects her application for an undergraduate program and one supportive professor advocates pulls strings to guarantee her admission. Because of her generally uncritical deference to authority figures, Westover’s aspiration to power is uncomplicated. After she has earned her doctorate, Westover recalls a question posed by her undergraduate professor during a college lecture: “Who writes history?”:

My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.”

Unwilling to deconstruct her idea of a historian, at least in this memoir, Westover chalks up her inability to imagine herself as a historian to a lack of confidence. While developing a stronger self-image is clearly an instrumental part of her journey, her memoir fails to consider the power dynamics that propelled her to this rarified position, or any complications about this position being so rarified in the first place.

In contrast, Gerald credits power—and his own predisposition to submit to it—for his journey from Dallas to the Ivy League to the finance industry. Power explains his early success in school and later in high school football, where Gerald would “submit to [the recruiters’] demands” and “feel such deep gratitude for his opportunity that he’d do almost anything, be almost anybody, not to lose it.” At Yale, success follows when he takes on the advice of faculty members and changes his clothes and his speech. At his summer job at a white-shoe law firm, it comes when Gerald performs his personal story for the partners, and one of these powerful men lands him another summer job at Lehman Brothers, the now defunct investment behemoth. Each time, submitting to power begets power. “If you know the right people, they can help you do anything, be anybody, rules and hard work be damned–as long as they like you,” Gerald writes. This, he calls “the real American Dream.” 

I heard and watched and learned a great deal from the people who turn, or try to turn, the axis of the world. What a wonder it was to behold. To see past their fights in political ads, in boardrooms, in history books–to witness how often they, in fact, want the same things, how they view the world through like-colored lenses, are shaped by schools and jobs and clubs that are the same or nearly, how well they work together to play in a game, to win a fellowship or get into a school, to make a billion and protect those billions, to run a country or save it or ruin it or claim it as their own.

Gerald learns another important lesson: With the right people behind him, there is no losing scenario. Though he wins neither the Rhodes scholarship for which he competed nor the important Yale football game that conflicts with his Rhodes interview, Gerald notes, “it seemed that I had reached the stratum of American life where, even when I lost, regardless of why I lost, people treated me like I won.” He wonders what it would have been like to experience this kind of support as a child in his “forgotten world.” And having tasted power now, he aspires to hold on to it and to exert it.

Illustration by Bea Vaquero

Somewhere along the way though, Gerald becomes troubled about the person this power dance is turning him into. He illustrates this point with an anecdote about a conflict in the Yale Black Men’s Union, which he has cofounded with his classmate Daniel to foster support among Black students at Yale and in nearby communities. Without going into great specifics, Gerald recalls how, during his senior year, the Union’s leadership is threatened by an intense  disagreement between Daniel and Elijah, another football recruit whom Gerald describes as “a little brother, the one who has done everything right…the bravest boy I ever met.” Gerald “resolves” this conflict by telling Daniel and Elijah to “Get over it or you’re fired,” a move praised by Gerald’s academic advisor. Both Daniel and Elijah do carry on their work, but Elijah feels betrayed by Gerald, which Gerald neither acknowledges nor understands at the time. Looking back, Gerald is horrified by his own actions, is horrified by the system that rewards this behavior. When Elijah commits suicide in his late 20s, Gerald believes that value system carries some responsibility:  “the way we were taught to be men, to be human beings even, was a dead end.” Gerald criticizes not just the arbitrariness of power—whom it helps and hurts—but also the kind of human it shapes: in his case, a man blind to his brother’s pain. While Gerald is deeply troubled by the personal compromises his success story demands, Westover is almost silent on the values of her new world.

Gerald and Westover seem to hold opposing attitudes about what exactly makes an education. In There Will Be No Miracles Here, education fails to teach its students “to be whole, to be free.” In Educated, education is freedom. To be sure, education liberates Westover in undeniable ways. It teaches her to trust her own thoughts and judgments after a lifetime of mental abuse, and it allows her to support herself financially. But we ought to be aware of the limits of Westover’s meditation on her education.

Beyond the accumulation of facts, Westover credits her education with creating a new “self,” a version of her that is more refined and more sensitive, one that belongs in her new world, as opposed to the “thing of stone, with no fleshy tenderness” that she was before. Westover ends her memoir with these parting words: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

Westover seems to believe the abused child who grew up among survivalists, toiled in the scrap yard as a kid, and didn’t know to wash her hands after using the bathroom could not possibly belong in the beautiful buildings at Cambridge. Only by taking on the sensibilities and values and identity of this new class of people does she become “educated.” While conceiving of herself in two halves may be helpful in dealing with her past trauma, this two-selves framing is troubling. It reinforces the idea that education is a process for achieving conformity, that it only belongs to certain types of people, and that its purpose is to continue creating that certain type of person. While shedding the pain of her childhood is admirable, and probably really difficult, Westover inadvertently endorses a destructive purpose for education. This suggests that it would perhaps be wiser to understand her memoir as her escape from an abusive home, and not as an “education as liberation” memoir.

Gerald’s insight is that his education at the best schools in the United States did not amount to liberation. For him, education and the road to a successful life has demanded the disavowal of his emotional life: his sadness, his friendships, his home, his loves. Enlightenment for Gerald only comes once he reaches back to nurture all the pain he hasn’t been allowed to feel, to chuck off his restraints. The scales-falling-from-the-eyes moment occurs when Gerald comes out as gay to his campaign manager and abandons a run for Congress in Texas: “I had strived to win this world and won my death instead.”

Gerald’s memoir lays bare the shallowness of his formal education and challenges us to imagine education as something better than a potential means of social and economic advancement. A liberatory education should cultivate all people from all classes—not only the class it already caters to, and not only select individuals like Gerald and Westover—“to be whole, to be free.” Instead of stomping out vestiges of their childhood selves, education ought to empower people of all backgrounds, to give them the tools to better understand themselves and the worlds they come from, and thus help us all better understand the world we live in now.

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