“Educated” Author Stresses the Importance of Active Learning in Presidential Lecture

Tara Westover, author of "Educated: A Memoir," spoke virtually as part of UVU's Presidential Lecture Series. Photo courtesy of Utah Valley University

Education is about accessing “different points of view” and is most successful when students have an active choice in learning, said Tara Westover to a virtual audience of UVU students.

Westover, who is known for her best-selling book “Educated: A Memoir,” appeared as part of UVU’s Presidential Lecture series, hosted by President Astrid Tuminez. The memoir describes Westover’s experience growing up with parents who restricted her access to formal education, and the abuse and gaslighting that was commonplace in her childhood. Westover went on to attend Brigham Young University before earning a doctorate degree in history at Cambridge University. She is currently a senior research fellow at Harvard.

Tuminez and Westover both addressed their unique approaches to education and what it means to learn.

“I’m interested in methods of education where people get a meaningful say in what they learn,” Westover said. “My most meaningful experiences with education came when I had a choice about what I was reading and what I was learning.”

She went on to encourage students of all ages to find things that interest them and pursue those topics. When asked what reading lists or books she would recommend to younger readers, she said she believes that each person has a better idea of what will be meaningful to them than.

“I’m a big believer in paying attention and finding things that you actually like,” she said. “Refine that instinct that you have for what you are drawn to.”

Despite the way that technological advances have made education more accessible, Westover said she has been reading and thinking about how technology can impact people’s lives in ways most aren’t aware of. 

“We’ve surrounded ourselves with these devices and technology but they do not have the agenda that we have,” she said. “You might want to do your homework and pass all your classes but your phone wants you to sit and look at your phone. Anything they can trigger in your brain to get you to keep looking at your phone, they’re going to leverage that.”

Westover cautioned students to be aware of that pull of technology and monitor how they are spending time. She suggested setting a goal each day for cell phone, laptop and television use and prioritizing meaningful social interactions over text messages or status updates.

Another aspect of technology that students should be aware of, according to Westover, is the minimizing effect that social media specifically can have on a person.

“Data can do many things, but it’s always an overrepresentation of reality,” said Westover. “You’re dealing with a less nuanced and less complicated picture of yourself. The danger is living with something that cuts off 95% of what you are as a human being.”

Throughout the lecture — as well as her book — Westover emphasized the importance of being able to accept failures and shortcomings without losing sight of one’s potential. She said she decided to write “Educated” because at the time she couldn’t find other people who were willing to write or share about similar experiences in a vulnerable way. Too often, she said, become too afraid of failing that they don’t even try.

“You only identify with the parts of yourselves that are admirable or acceptable in a public way and you alienate yourself from the parts that aren’t,” she said. “So what, you’re bad at chemistry? Can you live with that knowledge? If you’re too afraid of finding out you have a weakness you’re making your life [more dull].”

Westover repeatedly pointed out that although most students don’t have the same background as she does, going to therapy or asking friends for help can be powerful and affirming experiences for anyone.

“It took me a while to realize that there are parts of ourselves that we have shut down at one point or another,” she said. “You can live the rest of your life that way, playing with only half a deck. You might as well reclaim those parts of yourselves and take full advantage. The world might kick you around a little bit, but you don’t need to kick yourself around.”

“I’m a big advocate of therapy, but there’s no substitute for a good friend,” she added.

Tuminez ended the virtual session by sharing a quote of Westover’s — “education should be associated more with inquiry than certainty.” Earlier in the lecture, Westover said she welcomes and encourages various interpretations of her book — not just those pertaining to her overall message, but those pertaining to the facts. She said students, educators and parents should all be willing to truly listen and consider another point of view, because rarely, if ever, does any one person have all the answers.

“I have a policy,” Westover said. “I never correct anybody when they are describing what the book is about. That’s what stories are for, people take them and make them into what they need.”

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