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The Hidden Education Missing in "Educated"

Missing out on school led Tara Westover to miss out on more than knowledge.

Key points

  • In Tara Westover's memoir "Educated," she describes not being allowed to get a formal education. But she also missed key social learning.
  • Research shows how intergroup contact—having interactions with people unlike oneself—reduces one's bias against others.
  • Hearing weak versions of outsiders' arguments, not a strong version put forward by someone committed, "inoculates" people against that view.
  • Being raised without contact with outsiders and only being provided weak versions of outside arguments prepared Tara Westover for extremism.
 Photo by Flo Maderebner from Pexels
Being raised in isolation dramatically affected Tara Westover's childhood and outlook.
Source: Photo by Flo Maderebner from Pexels

Tara Westover was not allowed to go to school. That was the most obvious difference between her and other children, she writes in her memoir, Educated. She also was not allowed to go to the doctor, with her family relying instead on herbal and naturalistic methods of healing. Tara was brought up in a family culture that was insular in the extreme, where her father, brother, and other family members told her that too much contact with the outside world would corrupt her.

My friend and colleague Peter Leavitt are reading Educated as part of an ongoing discussion group we have on political disagreements. We introduced this series in this previous blog post. Today we’ll be discussing education and intergroup contact. [Note: Since the majority of people written about in the memoir are part of the Westover family, we’ll be using first names for the author and other characters to help make it clear who we’re talking about.]

Alex: Growing up without access to formal medical care causes obvious harm to the Westover family. Tara’s mother and brother, Shawn, both suffer brain injuries, which go untreated or have severely delayed treatment. The threat of injury is a constant in Tara’s childhood. Yet I want to focus first on the theme that she identifies in her title: education. In not getting a formal education, Tara did not have an opportunity to develop knowledge about the broader world that helps her take more control of her own life and world.

Peter: It’s striking to me how much effort the Westovers put into preventing their children from being influenced by the outside world. They clearly go to extremes to do this and, as you observe, it prevents Tara and her siblings from getting care and education that they would benefit from. Not only that, they are effectively prevented from obtaining any extensive experience with people living different lives from them. Exposure to ordinary others doing mundane things in mundane contexts and the social learning that happens as a result is something that most of us take for granted but is incredibly important, developmentally.

At a less extreme level, I think this process is actually commonplace; many people end up not knowing about the different types of lives others lead. Some of it is accidental, merely a product of the circumstances we were raised in, but much of it is more deliberate. I think about my own Mormon upbringing and the explicit instructions to avoid “the mere appearance of evil” which meant that I actively avoided a lot of people and places that I might have learned from. I think about how many other people live by rules similar to this. And I think, and worry, about the downstream consequences of it later in life.

 Photo by Sarah Chai from Pexels
Being only around those like us deprives us of opportunities to learn from each other.
Source: Photo by Sarah Chai from Pexels

Alex: “The Big Sort” of U.S. culture has been a theme in recent social science (there’s a 2008 book of that title). That book cites several relevant statistics about trends in the U.S.: people with college degrees tend not to move across the country anymore, but instead congregate in cities; megachurches have grown by targeting people who fit a particular “type” as opposed to building messages around bringing different local types together; and from 1976 to 2004, about twice as many people found themselves living in “landslide counties” that overwhelming favor one political party over the other. More and more, people live around those who are like them in education, religion, and political beliefs. These trends only seem to have accelerated with the growth in social media and division of news media into separate ecosystems.

In social psychology, intergroup contact theory addresses this process. I’m reminded of a 2015 paper reviewing literature and proposing a particular relationship between the number of interactions someone has with a member of a different group and their bias against members of that group. The article suggests that there is a threshold beyond which bias reduces by a large amount (somewhere from 10 to 30 interactions). Further interactions steadily decrease bias by a smaller amount. From the perspective of someone living it, this suggests that it’s the first several interactions with others that lead to the largest shift in your understanding of those not like you. Westover’s childhood was designed to prevent this process of acculturation—literally, getting familiar with the broader U.S. culture--from happening.

Peter: Another bit of psychology that this discussion brings to mind is inoculation theory. This is the idea that a person can build up resistance to future persuasive arguments by being pre-exposed to weak versions of those arguments and being provided refutations to those weak arguments. The ability to successfully inoculate followers against worldview-challenging arguments is something that many religious and political leaders seem to have an intuitive mastery of. I remember when I first learned of this in my undergraduate social psychology class, I immediately thought of the way that the Mormon leaders I looked up to engaged in this kind of attitude inoculation over the pulpit. The Westover family patriarch also seems to have an intuitive grasp of this concept, offering weak counterarguments against his positions.

 Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels
Innoculation theory helps to explain how isolation can turn to extremism.
Source: Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

Combine persistent attitude inoculation with impoverished or nonexistent intergroup contact and you’ve got a recipe for extremism. Not only are you being primed with ready refutations of the arguments of outsiders but you’re also never at serious risk of being exposed to the strong versions of those arguments, as espoused by real people. The Westover family enacted a very effective and extreme version of this process, the results of which are on clear display in Tara’s recounting. But I also think it’s vital that we all reflect on the little ways that we do exactly the same sort of thing in our own lives. Many of us spend a lot of time in homogenous, like-minded social spaces gaining group esteem by dunking on the strawman versions of outsiders’ worldviews.

Alex: It’s easy to see this as a conservative or fundamentalist religious issue since Gene Westover so frequently rails against “socialists” and “liberal professors.” But it’s also part of liberal dynamics. I recall reading a viral article on Cracked, where the author describes the way liberals tend to view Trump supporters:

“Already some of you have gotten angry, feeling this gut-level revulsion at any attempt to excuse or even understand these people … Aren't they just a mass of ignorant, rageful, crude, cursing, spitting subhumans? … Gee, I hope not. I have to hug a bunch of them at Thanksgiving.”

To me now, his take feels “Peak 2016” in its attempt to get liberals to rationalize and empathize with people who, it often seems, do not have any interest in being rational or empathic in return. Yet I also have conservative friends and family members who I love, and who I look forward to hugging on Thanksgiving. I do want to understand them, and the line for me seems to be holding space to have honest conversations when they’re possible, but not opening yourself up to trolling and abuse from people who are just looking to dunk on you. Limiting your exposure to others can make day-to-day life run more smoothly, but complete separation from others doesn’t work long term.

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