In 2019, approximately 9.6 lakh students appeared for India’s notoriously difficult engineering entrance exams. To an outsider, this number speaks glowingly of the ability of our schools to spark interest in the sciences. The unfortunate truth behind the popularity of engineering colleges, however, is that for most Indians, it is the only clear road to a salaried job. The idea of education as enriching in itself is altogether lost. In a climate of cut-throat competition where education is treated as a commodity, Tara Westover’s memoir Educated reminds our world of the immense power of education as the road to self-discovery.

Educated captures Westover’s harsh experience of growing up in a survivalist household in an isolated region in America. Her fanatical father believed the world would soon come to an end, and that the government was out to get them. Her mother was a midwife and eventually turned into a herbal healer with her own cures for every disease. They didn’t believe in hospitals or schools; the gravest injuries – and there were a lot – were treated with mother’s oils. Their schooling was restricted to a handful of books tucked away in the basement. But at 18, when Tara decided to go to college despite her father’s wishes, everything changed.

In one of the many moments of self-realization during her experience of a proper education, she writes, “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

Trinity College, Cambridge, where Westwood studied for an MA | Image credit: Cmglee / CC BY-SA 4.0

Through her experiences of the different worlds of home and college, Westover explores the clash of two belief systems – that of her father, polar opposite to that of the modern education system. For the first few months, she was permanently in a state of culture shock at the way girls dressed and talked, the things other students already knew. But she fought to close that gap, to truly belong in her new world, to re-invent herself on her own terms. Yet, even in college, she never completely escaped home. “Part of me will always believe that my father’s words ought to be my own,” she writes.

Westover’s story is jaw-dropping just in terms of the bare events of her life. The extent of her father’s paranoia and the repeated instances of physical and mental abuse meted out to her are so overwhelming that if this was a work of fiction, we’d be reminding ourselves of that fact. But Educated does not just thrive in real life incidents. It goes a step further, complementing the story of her life with finely crafted sentences.

The voice is always endearingly human, always intimate and reflective. It is as if you’re sitting with the writer under a starry sky as she narrates the stories of her life, at times pausing and thinking about these events, how they have shaped her, how she has changed. When she finishes, you’re left staring at that very sky, thinking among other things about how transformative education can be.

Westover is not out to change the world, for that would be far too arrogant. Her memoir is just a humble tale of how her education emancipated her, a young girl who was in the grip of her father’s worldview rooted in paranoia. But even in its humility, Educated cannot avoid being much more than a tale about the life and struggles of one young woman. Westover’s account brings out the potential that resides in our taken-for-granted education to transform us, to allow us to be in charge of our narratives, to live life on our own terms.

Obsessed with the lucrative compensation packages offered to students graduating from engineering colleges, we have perhaps lost the ability to imagine the potential of education beyond its material gains. In such an environment, Educated is a much-needed reminder that true education leaves us with something far more valuable – the freedom to leave our chains behind.