Tara Westover at Cambridge: How It Changed Her

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What’s it like to study at the University of Cambridge? What’s it like to study there when you’ve had little formal schooling and you hadn’t heard of the university until you applied? This was Tara Westover’s Cambridge experience.

Tara Westover’s Cambridge experience is entirely unique, but it also conveys the culture shock many people experience when they go to a new place. Learn how Tara Westover’s experience in Cambridge changed her life, as depicted in her memoir Educated.

Educational Background

Educated is the autobiographical story of Tara’s Westover’s journey from being the child of extreme anti-government, anti-science, and religious fundamentalist Mormon parents to becoming a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated PhD. 

Born in her family’s isolated home in the mountains of Idaho, Tara was denied a proper education as a child. Her father, Gene, believed that public schools were a tool of the “socialist” U.S. government, meant to “brainwash” people. As such, he kept his children out of school and relegated them to a dubious homeschooling curriculum designed by his wife, Faye, who lacked any proper credentials for educating children. There were no tests or exams at Faye’s rudimentary school, and Tara mostly learned to read and write by studying the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon. Because of this, Tara had enormous gaps in her knowledge—she barely knew the basics of elementary math and was deeply ignorant on key historical facts about the U.S. and the world.

With the help of her brother Tyler, Tara taught herself middle- and high-school math and took the ACTs. She scored well enough to be accepted at Brigham Young University.

Tara Westover’s Cambridge Arrival

When Tara returned to BYU after a break, she committed herself to studying history and politics. She realized that this was where her true intellectual passions lay. Her strong performance in a Jewish history course deeply impressed one of her professors. He became more intrigued by Tara when he discovered that she had only become aware of the Holocaust during her freshman year of college. 

To have learned so much in such a short time, with no background knowledge, was nothing short of remarkable. He recommended that she apply to a study-abroad program at the University of Cambridge in England (which she’d never heard of before). Although her application was initially rejected, this professor made sure that Tara was accepted, once he shared with the admissions council the story of her upbringing.

Cambridge was unlike anything Tara had ever seen before. She was awed by the beautiful medieval architecture and the aura of ancient learning that seemed to pervade every corner of the campus. She thought she was dreaming when she set foot there, never believing that her imagination could produce anything quite so grand.

Tara Finds Her Niche: Historiography

Her supervisor was the esteemed Professor Jonathan Steinberg, a global authority on the history of 20th-century Germany and the Holocaust. After speaking with him, she realized she wanted to study historiography, the study of how history is written. 

She wanted to study how the gatekeepers of history had overcome their own ignorance, just as she had, and come to understand the past. As history was a constantly evolving field of study, with new intellectual frameworks and new pieces of evidence rewriting the story, even the great historians like Thomas Carlyle and Edward Gibbon could now be shown to have been wrong about key events. By studying them, Tara could hope to come to terms with her own distorted understanding of history.

Professor Steinberg was a masterful intellectual guide. He pointed her toward the key works that she needed to study and also helped refine her style as a writer. He was as strict about grammar and sentence construction as he was about content, even questioning the specific placement of commas in Tara’s work. Tara flowered as a scholar under his tutelage. When she handed in her essay comparing the works of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke with the Federalist Papers, Steinberg was stunned by the quality of her work. He told her that it was one of the best essays he’d read in his 30 years at Cambridge. He told her that he would make sure she was accepted into whatever graduate program she chose to attend—and that he would take care of the fees.

Tara had earned her place. For the first time in her life, she believed that she had as much of a right to a fulfilling and intellectually enriched life as anyone else. Her strengths were innate—they had always been a part of who she was. It was only now that they were being given the chance to flourish.

Steinberg made good on his promise, sending Tara the paperwork to apply for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which would provide for her room, board, and tuition for her graduate studies in England. She was accepted into the program after her first interview.

Tara Westover’s Cambridge PhD

When Tara returned to Cambridge as a graduate student through the Gates Scholarship, her status was different. She was not a guest, or a visitor. She was a member of the university.

Tara was learning about Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty was the more basic concept, a freedom from external constraints. If you weren’t physically prevented from taking action, you enjoyed negative liberty. Positive liberty, however, was defined by a mastery of the self. This meant having control over one’s mind, a freedom from irrationality and paranoia, and all forms of self-policing.

Tara realized that it was this positive liberty that had been denied to her by her family. She had not had freedom of thought, but had instead been instructed to believe in irrational and paranoid lies, which had stunted her intellectual growth. She had also been a victim of self-coercion, most notably through her conviction that Shawn’s abuse had been her fault and that she needed to censor or edit herself to prevent it. The time had come to, as Tara’s favorite Bob Marley lyric put, it “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”

The Influence of Tara Westover’s Cambridge Friends

Tara Westover’s Cambridge friends were unlike any she’d known before. They were educated, erudite, and intellectually curious. She was set to embark on a whole new world of experiences as a full-fledged part of their world. She was no longer an outsider or observer looking in on this life: it was her life; she was of this world now.

She embarked on new cultural experiences that she never could have enjoyed before, including drinking red wine for the first time and traveling to Rome. She was in awe of the ancient city, and captivated by the interplay of buildings from antiquity with the modern infrastructure that surrounded her. She saw that she and her friends debating philosophy by the Trevi Foundation or discussing literature in the shadow of the Colosseum gave life to the ancient capital: they did not treat it as a dead relic, but instead made it the live background of their intellectual experience.

New Ways of Thinking

She began to embrace feminism, a word that had been a vile smear in the Westover home. Tara immersed herself in the writings of second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Simone de Beauvoir. Reading these authors, Tara discovered that centuries of repression by the patriarchy had obscured the true extent of women’s capabilities.

At home, her womanhood had been stigmatized as a source of weakness or as something that needed to be guarded by the males in her life. Her sexuality was something to be repressed and her thoughts were castigated as being less worthy than those of men. But if the true extent of female capabilities had been unknowable since time immemorial, then Tara believed there was a positive corollary: that all her potential was untapped and her possibilities were limitless.

She excelled in her studies and began to write about the ideas in the works of John Stuart Mill, the 18th-century English philosopher. She was intrigued by his ideas of self-sovereignty, particularly as they pertained to her own previously repressed life. The quality of her work continued to impress her professors. After excelling in her graduate studies, Tara was accepted into the PhD program at Cambridge.

Examining Mormonism

As a PhD candidate, Tara would no longer be studying the work of other historians. She now had to produce an original piece of research, to become a historian herself. She chose to bring her experience full circle: by studying Mormonism (her family’s faith) as an intellectual movement, not simply a religious one.

She reexamined the works of the Mormon prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the texts that had been some of her earliest points of contact with the written word. This included studying practices like polygamy as social policy, not just as part of church dogma. Looking at her own religion in this scholarly and dispassionate way felt like an act of radical self-liberation. It was a final act of shedding the fundamentalism and dogma of her youth. Tara Westover’s Cambridge experience completely altered the way she viewed the world.

Tara Westover at Cambridge: How It Changed Her

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Here's what you'll find in our full Educated summary :

  • How Tara Westover was abused by her brother as a child
  • Why Tara's parents set up the children for failure
  • How Tara ultimately broke out of her parents' grasp and succeeded for herself

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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