What comes to mind when you hear the word “educated”? Classrooms and ticking clocks? Professors gesturing to PowerPoints? Students debating the controversial topics of the day? Probably not junkyards, medicinal oils, and fundamentalist Mormons. These, however, set the scene in the harrowing memoir Educated, by Tara Westover.
One of the most talked-about books of 2018, Educated spent an incredible two years on the New York Times bestseller list. The memoir follows Westover’s childhood in a survivalist Mormon family. Her parents’ conservative, often paranoid worldview denied Westover and her six siblings anything more than sporadic homeschooling.
Hard to imagine this is one of the best books on critical thinking. But if you’re looking from an applied perspective, it really is.
A Path to Education as a Path to Critical Thinking
In the place of math and social studies, Westover’s young mind was filled with rants about government surveillance (and fake news). Her mother cowed to the belief that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Her father and older brother showed a dangerous disregard for safety, both physical and psychological. Nearly the entire family suffered mental and physical abuse.
It wasn’t until the age of seventeen that Westover stepped foot in a classroom. Despite being hopelessly behind, her thirst for knowledge drove her to achievement—first an undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University, then a PhD in history from Cambridge University’s Trinity College.
So where do critical thinking skills fit in?
On the surface, young Westover’s childhood in the mountains of Idaho build to a yearning for the wider world. She seems to have a subconscious understanding that her surroundings offer only ignorance and oppression.
But at its core, Educated is about the struggle—often grueling—to change the way we think.
Here are just a few of the applied takeaways that make it one of the best books on critical thinking.
Rethink what you don’t know.
There’s much to be learned from Westover’s personal struggle, including lessons for how to improve your critical thinking. In an office, we need to learn how to behave around others, how to solve problems, and how to grow as we make mistakes.
Critical thinking is one of the pillars of modern business education for good reason. It’s all about analysis and communication.
Brian Cathcart, who teaches Critical and Analytical Skills at GLOBIS, describes it as “increasing your own awareness of what you don’t know.”
Westover’s awareness of all the things she didn’t know crept up around her as she grew up. She began asking herself if the life she led and the life she was heading for—namely, the life her parents demonstrated—was what she wanted.
Consider the meaning of “time well spent.”
“Critical thinking is an important skill for those who want to make better use of their time—the time they have being alive—and how they decide what to do and what not to do,” says Cathcart. “It’s about being critical of yourself and taking action to improve yourself.”
Westover made the decision to spend her time pursuing education, but her journey hardly ended when she stepped off her mountain and onto a college campus. Surviving a brave new world beyond the suffocating boundaries of home took further analysis and communication.
When she failed at this, there were consequences.
An Educated Truth: Experience Doesn’t Always Apply
The things we learn when we are young, whether through formal education or the environment of our upbringing, become a deeply rooted part of who we are. When our beliefs are immovable—whether we believe that conservatism is decreed by a higher power, or that we are better than the “other,” or merely that ignorance is bliss—holding on takes most of our energy.
Belief that we are right can even become such a distraction that it justifies abuse.
Westover struggled to reconcile past experience with what lay plain in front of her. Many of us face similar challenges at work when we follow an established practice, rather than an innovation that might solve pain points.
Experience can certainly come in handy as a building block to growth. But closing ourselves off to change and relying solely on the past leads to trouble.
“Experience can help you think fast,” Cathcart says, “but it can also help you think too fast. The benefit of experience is knowing what to do without thinking about it. But that’s the problem with it, too.”
The assumptions we draw from experience are still merely assumptions. Westover learned this time and again.
She encountered people of faith who defied the teachings of her father. She hesitated on simple health decisions due to a childhood of equating modern medicine to poison. She shied away from well-earned praise because she’d been conditioned to feel inadequate as a human being.
“We know what we know because it’s experience,” says Cathcart. “But we forget that situations change. What worked in the past may not work in the future.” Thinking critically about business is as important as thinking critically about who we are as human beings. Critical thinking helps us understand the greater world, as it did in the journey Educated, by Tara Westover.