I went straight to the computer to look up the word, “Holocaust”. I don’t know how long I sat there reading about it, but at some point, I had read enough. I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. I suppose I was in shock, but whether it was the shock of learning about something horrific, or the shock of learning about my own ignorance, I’m not sure. I do remember imagining for a moment, not the camps, not the pits or chambers of gas, but my mother’s face. A wave of emotion took me, a feeling so intense, so unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure what it was. It made me want to shout at her, at my own mother, and that frightened me.  Tara Westover, Educated

At age 17, Tara Westover, who supposedly had been home schooled, steps into her first classroom ever at Brigham Young University. When she asks, in her art appreciation class, the meaning of a word - Holocaust - under a painting flashed onto a large screen, she is met with disdain, sheer disgust, even anger from the professor and other students. Thus, she rushes to the computer lab after class. 

Of all the passages in Westover’s 300-plus page memoir, Educated, this one culminating the humiliating scene in a college classroom, haunts me. It illustrates the entire premise of this young woman, who in seeking knowledge, knows that she will lose her family. Three brothers, who have also left the immediate family of nine, have encouraged her and supported her. Likewise, extended members of a family, long shunned by her parents, reach out to her.  

However, her decision to study leaves her totally estranged from her parents who believe that schooling for their youngest daughter means that, in addition to the rudiments of reading and writing,  she should learn the art of herbalism and the skills of midwifery like her mother. Her choice also alienates her from three other siblings, all employed by her parents, who not only “practice medicine,” but also maintain a junkyard on site of their survivalist bunker-home and operate a small construction company. Westover has given these relatives aliases in her book.

To return to the folds of the family, Westover’s parents demand that she denounce all information gleaned in her classes, admit that she was wrong for wanting to know more than they have taught her, and return to a life of ignorance. With a PhD in history from Cambridge University in England, plus a year of study at Harvard, all through the generosity of scholarships, she cannot say that “ignorance is bliss.”

Until she was convinced to turn many of her class assignments into this book, she  did not reveal information about her growing up years to others. Rather, she merely introduced herself, “I’m from Idaho.”

Educated is one of the most compelling memoirs I’ve encountered. I read each page, word for word, a description I rarely apply to much of what I read. And, I have pondered this question - what must a person forfeit in order to reach her/his own potential? Sadly, it should never have to be family. Shouldn’t family always want better for the next generation? 

After pondering the ultimate cost of Westover’s education, my thoughts turn to schooling itself.  Education starts with the acquisition of knowledge. The world is filled with smart people, people who can spout trivia like a Jeopardy winner. They are smart and they know it.

For Westover, who had taught herself enough rudiments of mathematics, grammar and science to earn a decent score on an ACT test, college lectures catapult her into hours of studies. In perusing every assignment, she is driven to learn facts she should have already been taught. Realizing how far behind she is, she hungers for information. Because she always feels as if she is playing catch-up, she never feels smart. 

For teachers, we would like all of our students to approach any class with the same drive to learn that has propelled Westover. However, many students, with a little knowledge under their belts, often feel that they know all that they need to know. Therefore, it falls on the instructors to inspire, cajole, push, motivate their charges into new knowledge. Teachers can make a difference.

For Westover, teachers, students, all of us, the real challenge eventually becomes how to use acquired knowledge wisely. And that search becomes our lifelong journey.

• Jamie Denty can be reached at jamiedenty@darientel.net. Please visit:  “From My Back Porch” at jldenty.wixsite.com/jamiedentycolumns. A “new” old column is published most Mondays.