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MBA Essentials
APR 26, 2019

Educated: What an Ex-Survivalist’s Memoir Can Teach Us about Critical Thinking

By Melissa McIvor
iStock photo/vkbhat

Most of us, when we hear the word “educated,” will immediately conjure images of classrooms and ticking clocks, of professors gesturing to PowerPoints, of students debating the controversial topics of the day. Far fewer of us will think of junk yards, medicinal oils, and conservative Mormons. These, however, are the key elements that set the scene in Educated.

This memoir by Tara Westover has enjoyed 61 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (currently holding third place). The story follows Westover’s childhood in a survivalist Mormon family that resisted education to the point of denying their seven children anything more than a sporadic, rudimentary take on homeschooling. Instead of history and literature, her young mind was filled with rantings about government surveillance, insistence that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and a dangerous disregard for safety that left nearly every family member physically or mentally damaged. At the age of 17, Westover finally made her way into a classroom. Her thirst for knowledge then drove her to achieve her undergraduate degree, then a master’s overseas, and higher learning beyond.

On the surface, young Westover’s childhood in the mountains of Idaho build to a yearning for the wider world, a subconscious understanding that she will find only ignorance and oppression if she stays where she is. But at its core, Educated is about the struggle—often grueling—of changing the way one thinks.

This draws an important parallel to growth as a business professional. In an office, we need to learn how to behave around others, how to solve problems, and how to grow as we make mistakes—how to think critically.

One of the pillars of modern business education, critical thinking is all about problem-solving and communication. Brian Cathcart, who teaches Critical and Analytical Skills at GLOBIS University, says it includes “increasing your own awareness of what you don’t know.”

Westover’s awareness of those things she didn’t know crept up around her as she grew older. 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.

“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 of her mountain and onto a college campus. Surviving a brave new world beyond the suffocating boundaries of her home took further analysis and communication. When she failed at this, there were consequences.

The things we learn when we are young, whether through formal education or merely the environment of our upbringing, become a deeply rooted part of who we are. We can believe that extreme conservatism is decreed by a higher power. We can scoff and sneer at those who are “other” and call them names far worse. We can embrace ignorance. We can justify abuse.

Throughout her journey, one of the first obstacles Westover faced was reconciling past experience with what lay plain in front of her. While experience can certainly come in handy as a building block to growth, closing our minds to changes in the world and relying on past realities can drop us at the door of paranoia and dangerous stereotypes.

In the world of critical thinking for business, as well, Cathcart cautions relying on experience too much. “Experience can help you think fast,” he says, “but it can help you think too fast. The benefit of experience is knowing what to do without thinking about it. And that’s the problem.”

The assumptions we draw from experience are still merely assumptions. Westover learned this for herself time and again. She encountered people of faith who conflicted with the teachings of her father. She hesitated on simple decisions regarding her health due to a childhood of equating modern medicine to poison. She shied away from well-earned praise, steeped in conditioning that left her feeling inadequate as a human being.

“We often know what we know because of 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. It helps us understand the greater world. It helps us see how a simple word like “educated” can bring to our mind images that others cannot see, and vise versa.