Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir Educated tells the story of growing up in a fundamentalist, doomsday-prepping Mormon family in Idaho.
She spent more time in a junkyard, hauling scrap in horrifyingly dangerous conditions, than doing anything that could remotely be termed “home schooling”. Anything she wanted to learn, she taught herself. She ended up with a PhD from Cambridge.
It’s a story that parents reckoning with the impacts of pandemic lockdowns on their kids’ education may or may not find reassuring. The human spirit is a startlingly tenacious thing, capable of overcoming great disadvantages and setbacks.
But while we love that story of the exceptional individual succeeding against all the odds, it is, after all, the exception. Tomorrow is International Literacy Day, and the spotlight is on how Covid threatens to widen pre-existing inequalities, locally and globally.
Yet how astonishing that the goal of universal literacy is so widely held, and ferociously pursued. Just 200 years ago, only 12 percent of the world’s population could read. Today, only 14 percent still can’t.
Until recently, the idea that everyone would be literate must have seemed simply laughable – but today, how obvious that we would arrange our societies towards that outcome.
It was 500 years ago that Protestant reformers like William Tyndale determined to free the Bible – to their mind, the highest means to knowledge, wisdom, and power – from the clutches of the educated few, and set it in the tongue and hands of ordinary people.
He was burned at the stake for his efforts. It took a long time for his dream to really catch on.
But it’s thanks to the exceptional vision and courage of people like Tyndale that we expect the education of all – the sixteenth-century ploughboy, the girls of Afghanistan, the children of Covid – to be ordinary.