The book 'Hillbilly Elegy' sheds light on a broad world that the 'leadership class' tends to discount.
J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” deserves its place on the lists of 2016’s best books; its tribute to the trials facing the white working class captures our political moment. But setting aside our apparent need to psychoanalyze “the Trump voter,” “Hillbilly Elegy”offers much illumination of a world most know dimly.
Vance traces the story of his Appalachian family from their home in eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents built a financially stable life thanks to jobs at Armco Steel Corp. Dysfunctional parents but wiser grandparents, they achieve a redemption of sorts in their guidance of Vance, rescuing him from his mother’s painful drug addiction, his own missteps and the surrounding low expectations in a post-industrial, fracturing Middletown.
A survivor of hard beginnings who would serve in the Marine Corps and graduate from Ohio State and Yale, Vance refuses simple explanations for his community’s problems. Businesses are shuttering, safety nets are underfunded and moving out is extremely difficult. Still, Vance takes seriously his grandmother’s calls for individual and collective self-help.
The picture of despair in “Hillbilly Elegy” cries out for policy solutions. But Vance’s final chapters made me see that we must likewise change the composition of our leadership class, which needs a much deeper connection to a wider American life.
Here, his account of Yale Law School is instructive. One professor complains that the acceptance of students from state schools forced him to conduct “remedial education.” Only an emergency phone call to his girlfriend saves Vance from a disastrous mishandling of silverware at a dinner for law firm candidates. Even as a “tall, straight, white male,” Vance was no more at home in these East Coast powerhouses than his classmates of color.
Vance’s memoir challenged me, as a Bowdoin College graduate, to acknowledge how elite schools can unknowingly isolate graduates from the “Middletowns” of America. Like Vance, I am profoundly grateful for the doors my school opens for me, but I also realize how this networking gives graduates a leg up against equally qualified students from lesser-known universities.
One witnesses in senior year the early formation of the self-segregated “SuperZips”defined and studied by political scientist Charles Murray – the ZIP codes with the highest per-capita income and college graduation rates. How many fellow top liberal arts college alumni would be present at our next job? Who among us was not flocking to New York, Boston, Washington or San Francisco? Would any of us consider roles of more quiet but critical leadership away from the coastlines?
Bowdoin’s dedication to the common good certainly corrects these tendencies; see the countless graduates joining Peace Corps or Teach for America. But colleges can only partially remedy the national meritocracy’s inclination to congregate in “The Bubble” satirized by “Saturday Night Live,” incapable of building a shared life with those coming from Vance’s world. Our republic can hardly thrive if, in Robert Reich’s words, this “secession of the successful” continues unabated.
Students like Vance, and the communities they hail from, were not sufficiently part of campus discourse at Bowdoin. The college’s service orientation does inspire much student engagement with Maine’s white working-class communities. But, compared to countless (and necessary) conversations on immigration or Black Lives Matter, there was little on Rust Belt blight, the opiate epidemic or rural poverty.
Several white classmates from “flyover country” – members of the first generation of their families to attend college – told me that they found it hard to feel truly comfortable at Bowdoin. My fantastic local co-workers in dining services expressed frustration. Where did their struggles fit into constant discussion of white privilege?
Far more progressive friends complained, too, about the absent discussion of class as opposed to other identity markers. In our election season, this neglect could become contempt for some classmates. Apparently, a liberal education’s commitment to first understanding what appears unfamiliar or repulsive cannot apply to “the deplorables” enthralled by Donald Trump’s vague (if false) promises of hope.
“Hillbilly Elegy” challenges readers who attended Bowdoin and similar schools, as we are frequently stuck in our own respective bubbles, whether cultural, economic or political. And may the book inspire energetic young people to involve themselves with the forgotten communities across our national landscape. Vance himself is leaving Silicon Valley to return to central Ohio and elevate Middletown and similar communities. Our national renewal demands that talented millennials take a similar step.