What 'Hillbilly Elegy' Doesn't Say
Incident in the Teachers' Lounge: A dozen teachers sit around a long plastic table, chatting and eating their packed lunches. A custodian enters the room, skirting the table, to pull a soda out of the refrigerator, then stands looking at the bulletin board, while taking long pulls on his drink. There's a pause in the conversation, and he says: So. You guys think this is funny, huh?
He points to a piece of paper tacked to the board, an internet-distributed list of excerpts supposedly drawn from parents' absence-excuse notes. Things like: Please excuse Sally. She was in bed with gramps.
There is silence, but the custodian isn't finished. He says: This is what you do in here? Make fun of parents? He shakes his head and leaves the room. As soon as the door closes, teachers turn to each other and begin talking. What do you think they say? How do they feel?
I was reminded of this scenario from my own teachers' lounge as I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. I was anticipating a good read—it was on all the "Best of 2016" lists—but found the book shallow and insubstantial.
J.D. Vance grew up in a small town in southwestern Ohio in a working-class family. Aided significantly in a tough childhood by his ever-present, loving grandmother, and after a maturing stint in the Marines, he attended Ohio State, then got a law degree from Yale.
An impressive personal narrative—plaudits to Vance for his persistence—but hardly illustrative of the poor habits and prospects of an entire region of the country. Nor does Hillbilly Elegy illuminate any of the very real problems or crises, per the book's title, facing working-class families in America today, beginning with the dangerous income gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens the social order.
In fact, Vance is intermittently reproachful, blaming family members (mostly his mother) for being irresponsible and foolish, and chalking it up to their Scots-Irish heritage and growing up in Kentucky. He seems unaware of his own privilege—being a tall, nice-looking, intelligent white man in a country where those qualities are an enormous leg up, for example.
He describes his public school education as sub-par, with the exception of one demanding math teacher. The training and subsequent education benefits of a stretch in the military get short shrift. Ohio State? Easy peasy. It isn't until Vance finds himself at cocktail parties where his admission to Yale seems to be paying off with high-level clerkships and job opportunities that he realizes he's been handed a golden ticket, and he's being watched to see if he can fit in.
Instead of reflecting on all that good fortune, however, he labels his family hillbillies, monetizing their salty speech, their blind loyalty to a particular funeral home, and their parochial weaknesses, as they struggle to survive in the most inequitable First-World nation on the planet.
In the post-war years, as millions of Baby Boomers became the first generation to attend college, class lines began to blur. It wasn't until my Sociology 101 class that I realized my family was not "middle class," but further down in the pecking order. It wasn't until I read W.E.B. Dubois' "The Souls of Black Folk," that it occurred to me that moving up in the social order came with a cost to family relationships, and, sometimes, personal integrity. It wasn't as easy as excelling in school and leaving your grubby antecedents behind—there were other important values besides "success."
Here's the question J.D. Vance avoids: Whose fault is it that "more than 50 million Americans live in distressed communities, where nearly a quarter of residents lack a high school diploma, and employment opportunities have dropped by nearly 7 percent?" Conversely, who is responsible for lifting themselves out of poverty? Is this a result of hard work and personal discipline only, "rising above" family characteristics—or do social supports, like public education, military training, and publicly funded scholarships also form the proverbial rising tide?
Most of the educators sitting in that teachers' lounge were second- and third-generation college graduates. To them, the misspelled excuses were funny; their students were sometimes apples who fell near the poorly educated tree. Still, the custodian's comment—You think this is funny?—found its mark. The post came down. Teachers responded with a mix of embarrassment and defensiveness.
A good public educator accepts all students, kids raised in hothouse homes with thousands of books and trips to the museum and kids who ate sugary cereal in front of the TV until their single mom unlocked the door at midnight. Kids across the spectrum benefit from public education.
J.D. Vance's story is more about individual good luck than an analysis of a culture in crisis.