by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Colin McCaig
“The greatest competition to the establishment of social science was literature” observed one of our undergraduate lecturers many moons ago. If you wanted to know about the conditions of Victorian England, would you like to read a report detailing the diet and housing conditions of members of different social groups or read Charles Dickens?
As scholars in the field of widening participation and social mobility we were implicitly challenged to reconsider this question: is it literature or is it social science that touches us, and motivates us to change policy or even our own actions? Unsurprisingly, we argue that there is room for both genres, but literature wins hands down in terms of instilling passion and allowing us to consider issues with our hearts rather than heads.
We are talking here about Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, that ‘went viral’ in the United States and beat Michelle Obama’s autobiography to become the Goodreads Choice Award 2018. Among the over 50,000 reviews of the book is one from Bill Gates and the book was on Barack Obama’s summer reading list.
Reviews and talk-shows featuring the memoir have focused primarily on the family story and the often disturbing relationships between family members, which led to the ultimate schism between Tara and her parents. But reading the book as social scientists, we did not only see a memoir of bizarre familial dysfunctionality, we found ourselves reading this book as the ‘ultimate widening participation’ story.
Born in Idaho to a Mormon survivalist father opposed to public education (indeed, any government activity), Tara never attended school or saw a doctor. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. While one of her siblings taught her to read, another frequently attacked her violently with the parents looking away. Her story of transformation through education began when Tara taught herself the numeracy skills required to pass the standardised entrance test for universities, the ACT. This set her on an education journey to Brigham Young University (a Mormon university in Utah), Harvard and to her PhD at Cambridge, England, on The family, morality and social science in Anglo-American cooperative thought, 1813-1890.
Reading Tara’s story with the eyes of social mobility scholars, it offered much reassurance for academics committed to the access agenda. Tara is admitted to higher education despite her lack of traditional (school) credentials. She receives a partial fee waiver by the institution. When, eventually, she applies for federal financial aid help, she receives help from the state. Her tutor encourages her to apply for a study abroad opportunity at Cambridge. Not only this, but when she is not selected, he uses his knowledge of her and her context to advocate for her and succeeds in getting her a place. Other tutors spot her talent and encourage and advocate for her to obtain a scholarship – the Gates scholarship – to undertake her PhD work at Cambridge. There are also wider support networks: when she first enters higher education, a Mormon Bishop supports her though conversation and, at Cambridge, she is able to enrol at the University Counselling Service.
We read this as a partial redemption story for those working on access and increasing opportunities. We are often frustrated by slow progress and continued inequities in access, progression and success in higher education, or we see HE institutions struggling to change as fast as society to be fully inclusive. There is always a feeling that more could be done: our outreach programmes sometimes don’t reach the most disadvantaged. There can be inadequate regional coverage of opportunities. Higher education may not be the right choice for everyone. Our institutional timetables don’t always allow for students to have part-time jobs they need to fund themselves or their caring responsibilities. We have to make the same arguments year after year to keep widening participation as a core consideration of the daily activities of our institutions. Universities are all fishing for the same ‘diamonds in the rough’ which, in the UK, is often solely defined as a disadvantaged student, however measured, with unusually high grades given their opportunities and context. We need to work on widening access and funding for postgraduate study. And all this is not for lack of social science evidence of what the issues are, or ideas of what needs to be done to achieve greater evidence – it’s just that it is hard to do it all the time. So, it is easy sometimes to be frustrated.
And then along comes Tara and tells the story of how it is all worth it in the end. How she encounters academics who are fundamentally decent human beings, who can contextualise her knowledge and lack thereof, who care and make a difference. And she tells of a state government that does actually offer funding (if modest), of institutions that offer scholarships (if modest), of scholarship panels that are thoughtful – perhaps even wise – and of professional service parts of the university successfully working to support students.
But there are also questions the book leaves us with, that emphasise the need for further research: Tara was able to compensate for an almost complete lack of education by passing a college entrance test. This would not be possible in the English system – save for, perhaps the Open University, institutions respond to market drivers and want young people from a traditional trajectory of having been to school, taken exams (especially A-levels in favoured subjects) and demonstrated prior success. Tara would have been denied the opportunities of higher education in the UK and we would have lost out on a PhD – and, more importantly, her book.
We can also ask how people who share some of Tara’s ‘educational disadvantages’, such as rurality and home-schooling, could be reached and inspired to change their journeys. It is clear that Tara is an incredibly resilient and reflective woman; it would be unreasonable to infer that everyone in her circumstances could have taken the path she did. How can we support more people who share some of Tara’s characteristics to enter higher education?
We also wonder about the role of academic discretion, one of the greatest aspects of being a professional in higher education. The academics in the book put their discretion to good use to support Tara, creating a powerful story of individual academic success and opportunities. But how can we create more structures that enable more of such individual success stories? For example, we don’t know – from the book – whether there are established links between universities with a specific religious focus – such as Brigham Young – and favoured entry to her subsequent institutions, Harvard and Cambridge. Was her discretion-enabled journey really about her specific talents, or was she just the Mormon applicant with the most harrowing backstory? Access work is all about equalising opportunities for progression into HE, but the implication is that Tara was helped on her way because of her initial church affiliation and subsequent links between institutions with Christian foundations. In essence, the access question is: would an uneducated rural girl from the mountains of Idaho have the same opportunity if she didn’t have familial links with the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Discretion, when it is essentially discrimination, can be more structural than personal.
Social science can give us good questions, good evidence, answers and facts. Literature can put the soul and heart into the stories and inspire more thinking, research and action. Dr Westover may not have intended to create new lines of research in social mobility, but she has nonetheless succeeded in doing so perhaps to a greater level than recent scholarly books in the field. So we end with a big thank you to Dr Tara Westover for sharing her fantastic story!
SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. SRHE member Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.
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