Teachable Moments from “Hillbilly Elegy”

By now, you have probably heard about “Hillbilly Elegy,” a captivating memoir by J.D. Vance.  In the book, Vance tells the story about his life as a child and young man growing up in Middletown, Ohio, a small town whose people were struggling with the social and economic aftermath of de-industrialization of the 1980s and 1990s.

The book was released in the Summer of 2016, and it really caught fire with the press and opinion makers because it hit the market at an opportune time – right during the 2016 election season when there was a great deal of attention to Donald Trump’s courting of disaffected white working class voters.  “Hillbilly Elegy” focuses on a subset of Trump’s electoral lynchpin – Appalachian families from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia who made their way North after World War II to Ohio and Indiana, leaving coal country to work in manufacturing.

I’ve been fascinated by the cultural and social experience of the white working class for years – because these are my roots too.  My mom grew up as the child of tobacco farmers in central North Carolina, and they exhibited some of the characteristics of life described in Vance’s book.  Mom never missed a day of school in her entire 12 years of schooling, even when she was sick, and I think that was partly because school offered a respite of peace and stability from home that she really needed.  Life on a tobacco farm without electricity and running water and too much alcohol was hard, even though she has a lifelong affection for her extended family and roots there.

Also a few years ago, I watched Diane Sawyer’s profile of Appalachia on CBS, and it made me aware of the depths of white poverty in that specific region that was shocking and sad.

Vance’s book is fascinating because he speaks as someone who grew up in the experience, not from the outside perspective of a social scientist.  While Vance has moved past his small town life and succeeded in the larger world, he speaks with knowledge and authority about people who seem trapped in economic and family circumstances.   Of course, his observations don’t universally apply, but they are compelling.

Here are four key insights I gleaned from his story:

  1. The Myth of Hard Work – While the value of hard work was talked about freely, it was not actually experienced by many of the men and women he knew. Economic opportunities were sparse since large-scale manufacturing evaporated, and the lack of a true work ethic was undermined by drug and alcohol addictions and the relative ease of receiving public assistance.
  1. Family Trauma Impacts Learning – Vance and many children he knew grew up amidst a torrent of angry fighting and turbulent home environments.  When he was forced to live only with his mother and her various husbands and boyfriends, Vance struggled with depression and poor school performance.  Yet, when he was able to live with his more functional and supportive grandparents, his school performance and well-being improved significantly.
  1. The Path to Social Mobility isn’t Obvious to Everyone – Vance observes that poor children and their families believe in the importance of education, but they really don’t understand how to advance to higher levels of the workforce. He also notes that many folks don’t really see a connection between hard work and success.  He says that many children and adults believe that if you’re successful, it’s because you’re either lucky or naturally smart, not because you worked hard.  He also pointed out some examples of children like him who excelled and rose out of poverty.  They were children who had at least one parent from a family outside of the “hillbilly” subculture, or like Vance, had other impactful influences, like grandparents and a military experience.
  1. The Power of Caring, Consistent Adults – While Vance’s mom did love him, she was also a troubled person who battled addiction time and time again, usually losing the battle.  But for him, his grandparents were the change agents.  By the time he was born, they had gotten sober and stable, so they could provide some stability for him in spite of his mom’s turbulent lifestyle.  Even though they weren’t well educated, they valued education and they offered consistent support and love (albeit a rough and raw version of love compared to middle class norms.)  But their love and consistency kept Vance afloat, and the military experience helped him break out of limiting mindsets he had about himself.  He grew in self-discipline and self-confidence, and after finishing four years in the military, attended and graduated from Ohio State University and then succeeded at Yale Law School.

(I think it is interesting that for Vance, he didn’t feel ready to go straight to college and instead chose to join the military as the better path. His intuitive experience echoes that of millions of vets who have utilized GI Bill benefits to gain education and training after they had grown in maturity through their military service.)

Throughout the book, Vance doesn’t communicate his story with a pedantic or moralistic approach – he just tells an unflinching story of his difficult childhood and later success, and it’s up to the reader to make some of the connections like the ones I just shared.  For all of us who care about helping youths achieve and reach their potential, his story is a teachable moment.

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com).  NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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