So I am, at heart, a rural educator. But I have served in rural schools, urban schools, government agencies tasked with working in schools, and Higher Education. I am almost 40, having spent almost 7 years in rural schools, and 2 years in an urban school (directly) and almost 7 years tangentially. I have been in higher ed for almost 4 years. Rapidly approaching 40 is causing me to reflect an awful lot on my experiences and, as the sociologists like to say privileged. I want to lay that out upfront: I am privileged. My family was nuclear, we had many hard working aunts and uncles who surrounded us. I knew both sets of grand parents. We had friends of the family who were close and were surrogate aunts and uncles. My parents worked very hard for stability and, as is shown by the travel we undertook as vacations and Dad’s training, experiences in the wider world. Ye there were rough times too: Dad getting structurally unemployed (layed-off) by ConRail as it imploded. Losing Adam, my baby brother died due to birth defects. The family moving away from our nuclear support to Gloversville. The money that never seemed to be enough, but always was so that we had food, shelter, cloths, and experiences to museums.
Reading JD Vance’s book, I alternated between understanding and amazement. I recoiled at some of his thoughts, and supported others. I really think his book needs to be read in tandem with Kathy Cramer’s book on the rise of discontent among the rural communities. Its a great book for one perspective on rural, rural poor, and rural white poor in difficult family situations. His efforts strive to give voice to a group that has been voiceless. It is a vivid retelling of his experiences from when he was young to his graduation from Law School. Vance uses the term Hillbilly to describe his family and their actions. Through this lens, the tale is told of life that moves from one crisis to another and then through redemption at the feet of his grandparents, his older sister, and the US Marine Corps.
I want to stop here and give thanks and praise to the US military for their efforts at raising “thrown away” children in the U.S. Quite often a story about how service in one branch or another has turned someone’s life around by instilling a sense of order and discipline which was lacking.
JD’s family experienced a number of issues, ranging from drug and alcohol problems, the de-industrialization of the Midwest, instability in nuclear family, and the disinvestment of public education during K-12. His characterization of living in a Rust Belt City is more accurate than the rural connotation the title and many publicists have given the general public. I argue that reading this book, JD has given voice to a disenfranchised group of people in the inner city and small peripheral cities. As I was reading the text, I thought about Lois Weis’s work Working Class without Work and Willis’ Learning to Labor. Both examine the plight of large, urban city working class. Vance’s work adds to the narrative for smaller and mid sized cities. I would like to add that Worked Over By Dukos helps tell the tale of the Mohawk River Valley.
While JD’s grandmother plays an exceptional role in the book until he loses her to death, he hints very gentle about the lessons that he learned from her. It is true that this work is his homage to her, and to the loving care which she provided. I wished he would have explored his sister’s influence in more detail. She seemed to have done yeoman’s work in protecting him from the extremes which his family overcame. While he is the central storyteller in the book, I believe that the text should be examined by feminist scholars for the way in which women influence life in different economic strata in the U.S. The glass ceiling is a terrible wrong committed by power in society, but I think a recognition of the rock solid foundation that women provide to many needs greater recognition. If not, how many more families would fall ever further into the morass.
JD Vance’s book raises a series of policy questions which need to be addressed: How do we get the Harvard, Yales and Stanfords to do a better job reaching non-elite applicants? Can the United States Education System examine its self beyond year to year testing and see how well schools provide movement into different career goals which children express? Would a systematic health care policy which universally protected mental health, dental health, vision and physical health reduce the number of school and family related issues? Should the US government’s next major infrastructure investment be in creating safe lead free and mold free housing in cities, suburbs, and rural areas? How can we better leverage the military’s guidance system to help disaffected youth?
While we have Troops to teachers, we may need to deploy more service members into areas most affected by malaise. Not as an occupying force, but as mentors in communities where they are not found, or in short supply. Our military has been tasked with fighting terrorists abroad. There is a much greater need at home: fight the drug gangs, and fight the social anomie which has emerged in urban and rural areas from job losses and societal breakdowns.
Harsh words emerge within the text, and they can grate on people who have never experienced the bias and the different norms that JD experienced. The question becomes how to stop the characterizations and the lack of tolerance and understanding which Vance brings up in his memoir. It is a question which is unanswered in the book, and in many ways unanswered by the academy.
JD Vance’s work Hillibilly Elegy allows a peek into the mind of the white working class. A memoir with powerful experiences and moments of pain which come across to the reader in an easily accessible text, it should be an assigned course reader in a sociology and policy class at the Graduate level.