Tara Westover

National Humanities Medal


Author photo of Tara Westover
Photo caption

—Photo courtesy of Tara Westover

Tara Westover, for turning American life into literature. Tara Westover’s memoirs of family, religion, and the transformative power of education, has moved millions of readers and served as a powerful example of how the humanities can set people—and a Nation—free. 

When Tara Westover wrote her memoir Educated, her first book, she thought the audience would be very limited. “It felt small,” she says via email. “Hopelessly specific. I did not imagine that it would be of significance to anyone whose experiences were not the same as mine.”

Instead, Educated debuted at #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 2018 and remained on the list for more than two years. It has been translated into more than 45 languages and earned a spot on all major “best-of” lists. Barack Obama and Bill Gates declared it among their favorites that year. Neighborhood book clubs, high schools, college campuses, literary circles, and the culture at large adopted Educated with incredible enthusiasm.

“I was wrong,” says Westover. “Imaginations are vast, and it turned out that readers found themselves in the story even when the particulars diverged from their own experiences, even when the setting was transformed, the climate altered, the faces a different shape and the voices a different pitch. What I learned from this is that my story exists in many forms, in many places; that my story was, in fact, the story of others.”

Westover was born off the grid in rural Idaho on the edge of a mountain sometime in September of 1986—no birth certificate was issued. She is the seventh child of Mormon parents who were doomsday preppers. Her father constantly railed against the government, the medical establishment, and the Illuminati.

I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood,” she wrote in Educated.

Barely homeschooled, Westover’s reading was limited to the Bible and nineteenth-century writings of religious leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Instead of boarding the school bus that passed by their house, the children spent their days laboring in the family scrapyard, working without protective gear. Their mother, an herbal healer and midwife, treated serious injuries with essential oils. One brother physically abused her while another encouraged her to get out. By teaching herself algebra and trigonometry, Westover scored high enough on the ACT to gain admission to Brigham Young University.

At college, she stepped into a classroom for the first time in her life. The transition wasn’t smooth, socially or academically. Her social circle had until this point consisted only of her family. In one of her first classes, she asked what the Holocaust was. She had never heard of the civil rights movement and thought Europe was a country. Reading only religious texts prepared her for the academic rigors of college. “The Bible may not offer a comprehensive education, but its language and philosophy are complex and taught me a crucial skill, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.”

At BYU, Westover found worlds of possibility. “Some of that possibility I found in classrooms, but much of it I found in the people around me. The world outside my family turned out to be very different from the world within my family. These new people behaved in strange ways. There was a tolerance for difference, for a diversity of opinion, that had not been present in my childhood. This, I have come to understand, is the key ingredient for growth.”

Lacking the funds needed to continue, Westover considered dropping out and working at In-N-Out Burger. A church leader told her about Pell grants. She received $4,000 which meant she could stay in school and purchase textbooks. Later she wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “There is the one thing I learned when I cashed that check: that people cannot always be resilient, but a country can.”

Westover finished college and, after winning a scholarship, earned a PhD in intellectual history from Trinity College, Cambridge. In 2019, she was the Rosenthal Writer in Residence at Harvard University.

Education, she believes, should be more accessible. “That does not mean that everyone must go to college, nor that we should treat harshly, or with contempt, those who do not have a college education. We must not allow education to become yet another sad marker of class, a chasm that separates one type of person from another.”

She also believes education is not the possession of knowledge but the pursuit of it. “Studying the humanities showed me that there are other ways of being—that the life I was living at that moment was just one of many possible lives, and that there could be others. . . . To be educated is not to know more than another person, but simply to know that other person as kindly and as curiously as you can. . . . I have come to believe that the sharing of stories and experiences—seeing ourselves in others and others in ourselves—is the whole point of literature, of telling stories.”

—Laura Scanlan

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.