Learning Versus Unlearning- A Takeaway from Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

I recently finished the New York Times bestselling memoir, Educated, by Tara Westover.  It is a book club’s dream title, as there are multiple themes and topics for discussion.  The author delves deeply into family relations, mental illness, women’s roles, off-grid living, holistic medicine, and more.  Like any good book, it made me think…  A lot.

The biggest takeaway for me is summed up in Westover’s final lines which inspire the title of the book.  She writes of a turning point in her life when her decisions henceforth were made by a new version of herself.  She was suddenly no longer the girl she was, “You could call this selfhood many things.  Transformation.  Metamorphosis.  Falsity.  Betrayal.  I call it an education.”

These powerful lines made me think of an idea that I have heard thrown around in education circles in recent years; that of learning versus unlearning.

Educated is a memoir in two parts.  Part one chronicles her life living in rural Idaho at the base of a mountain called, Indian Princess.  She was raised, for the most part, off the grid, receiving her birth certificate at the age of nine.  Her father, a domineering, fundamentalist Mormon who suffered undiagnosed mental illness, ingrained his paranoia into all members of his family.  He and his wife raised their children to mistrust and even fear “the government” which to them included organizations and institutions such as formal education and modern medicine.  They grew up isolated, were self-taught with limited resources, and treated any illness or injury (which were occasionally severe) with herbal home remedies.

In part two of the memoir, Westover attempts to assimilate to life off the mountain when she leaves home.  She is driven by a burning curiosity and goes off to attend college and fulfill a greater potential.  She ultimately goes on to achieve more than most people given every opportunity.  She received a PhD in history, and won fame and accolades for her writing of Educated, earning praise from the likes of President Barack Obama and Bill Gates.

Westover’s story is undeniably impressive.  Upon entering college, her education was so limited, she had never even heard of common knowledge topics like William Shakespeare or the Holocaust.  In addition, Westover had to also learn the ways of the world in terms of social norms.  Her strict religious upbringing and lack of exposure to media of any kind made getting along with peers and dating painful.

To move from “knowing” so very little in terms of formal education and the workings of the world meant she had to LEARN a great many things, and she did, at an impressive rate.  It reveals a grit, passion, tenacity, and courage that we rarely get to see today.  

The real accomplishment in my eyes, however, is something far beyond her capacity to learn; it is in her ability to UNLEARN.

This is where Westover is most awe-inspiring and why this memoir literally shifted my perceptions about education.  Of her own volition, she managed to unlearn beliefs that were driven into her by fear during her upbringing.  Her miracle has been her ability to shift her worldview after having spent years hunkering down with her family, hiding buried ammunition and a stockpile of canned goods waiting for the certain end of the world.

Learning Versus Unlearning

As an educator working with middle schoolers, I often think of students as clean slates or empty vessels ready to receive the accumulated wisdom of the ages through books and media and the lessons of wise teachers who have studied the ins and out of their subjects for years.  School is for learning.  Westover “learned” more in a span of a few years than most do in a lifetime.  

Unlearning requires the restructuring of the content that has already been placed, voluntarily, or as in the case of Westover, forcefully, in the mind, heart, and soul.  It is the process by which we utilize new information to TRANSFORM what we already know.  I think of the term, neuroplasticity, which is the rewiring of the brain.  It is about questioning the faith you have in things unseen.  It is the ability to challenge your very sense of self.  

And to never stop…

To truly be able to “unlearn” one must be open to the possibility that everything they know and accept may be overturned with new knowledge and experience.  There is no degree to be earned.  You never master the subject.  You never know enough to stop transforming and growing.  

Think of your mind as a vessel.  Learning is like pouring in more and more ingredients.  Thinking is stirring it together into a processed pulp.  Unlearning is adding heat, creating a chemical reaction, and changing the current contents altogether.  “Unlearners,” like Westover, have built-in Bunsen burners at the bases of their souls, constantly churning and transforming what exists between their ears.

The concept of unlearning is applicable to more than just formal education, but to things like religion, politics, and gender roles as well.  “Unlearners” by their very nature can not subscribe one hundred percent to the belief systems or restraints of any one group.  Unlearning requires openness and questioning. 

I believe that if this concept were grasped on a societal level, there would be much less polarization and “this” or “that” mentality.  There would be greater acceptance of a wider variety of beliefs.  Perhaps this is what schools need to focus on today in this climate of conflict and division.  Unlearning is about liberation of the mind.  If we could help kids learn to unlearn, over and over, as opposed to merely “teaching” them, they too can become truly EDUCATED.

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