Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was one of the top non-fiction bestsellers of 2016. The page-turning story by J. D. Vance, which describes his volatile upbringing between the Appalachian coal country from whence his maternal grandparents migrated and the fast-declining Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, has become an icon representing the neglected, White working class culture to which President-elect Donald Trump so successfully appealed in his campaign.
I reviewed Hillbilly Elegy for the Bowling Green Daily News back in October (you can read the review here). I'm pleased that a number of educators have also noticed the book and its troubling implications for how we address the learning needs of "hillbilly" children and their families. In this post I'd like to reflect a bit on those implications, both from a policy and a practice perspective. If you haven't read Hillbilly Elegy, then I encourage you to read my review and those of others for background on what follows.
First, a note about language: I use the word "hillbilly" here because it's the term Vance chooses to describe his people. As I wrote in the Daily News, "For Vance, hillbilly is not a pejorative term and does not necessarily describe people from a particular geographical region, but rather those who share a common set of values and habits of lifestyle that are simultaneously admirable and self-destructive." Vance's family was from Eastern Kentucky, but the hillbilly ethos is personally familiar to me from my own upbringing and family experiences in South Central Kentucky. Any readers who have lived or worked in the rural South or Rust Best cities and suburbs, especially if they grew up there, will recognize the hillbilly culture. It is characterized by virtues like fierce loyalty and a strong affinity for place and family, but can also exhibit a self-defeating close-mindedness, defensiveness, and even violence.
Hillbillies have suffered tremendously from the rapid globalization of the world economy. As coal mines and factories have closed, replaced either by low-paying manufacturing and retail jobs, or more commonly by nothing at all, the economic opportunity for their communities has withered. Underemployment, welfare dependency, drug addiction, and the rapid decline of traditional family structures have further accelerated the spiral of despair. Teachers and school leaders charged with educating the children of these families face an enormous challenge. Teachers throughout Kentucky know the great frustration of trying to educate kids like J. D. Vance, only to see families and culture undermine their progress and chances for success.
Hillbilly Elegy has left many educators pondering what can we do more of or differently to better reach these students. I must confess I don't have many ready answers, especially on the policy front. As I've noted before, top-down policies from the state and federal government cannot make up for the critical, day-to-day decision making of parents, teachers, and school leaders. And there are no single, "silver bullet" policies that are going to magically make student achievement skyrocket, especially in spite of economic and cultural factors over which educators have little control. If I have a proposed education policy agenda for "hillbilly" kids, it doesn't differ much from the reforms I'd like to see on behalf of all students: a more robust curriculum, especially in the elementary grades, more personalized learning environments, and expanded school choice policies that give parents new options and teachers more flexibility and autonomy.
My support for charter schools is well-known, and I do think there is more promise for charters in rural areas than many people realize, but I don't see charters making a huge educational impact in this regard (in Kentucky, hillbilly kids are almost entirely rural). Private school choice may provide a complementary policy strategy for rural families, especially through scholarship tax credits, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of rural students are going to be educated in traditional district schools.
For all schools (including charters and parochial schools), there is a great need for curricular improvement (this argument is best laid out in my recent review of E. D. Hirsch's new book, Why Knowledge Matters). Hillbilly kids, like most from low-income families, are not sufficiently exposed to the wide body of cultural knowledge they need for economic and personal success. These disadvantages are often exacerbated in the early grades where an over emphasis on skills (as opposed to content) further deprives them of knowledge they will need to read and understand many different content domains in later grades.
Improvements in curriculum, coupled with a more personalized instructional approach that meet students at their individual readiness levels, may have great leverage for improving learning, especially for those from underprivileged backgrounds (and for a promising experiment with personalized learning, see the innovative approaches being pioneered in the Metcalfe County Schools as part of their District of Innovation status).
But one of the clear lessons of Hillbilly Elegy is that the problems confronting hillbilly families are much more complex than straightforward policy solutions - or educational practices - can solve. J. D. Vance escaped the patterns of self-destruction that threatened his future, but he did not do it because his schooling experiences where exceptional. He acknowledges that his schools were decent enough, though his teachers seemed to have no sense of urgency or concern about the grim economic prospects confronting him and his peers. Rather, it was the network of people in his life who gave him encouragement and positive example. As I wrote in my review:
[Vance] attributes his success to a handful of vitally important - if inevitably flawed - people, including college professors and Marine Corps mentors, but also his grandparents and even his mother who, despite her host of problems, encouraged his love of learning. Vance says that he benefited from decent schools, Pell grants and his grandmother's Social Security, but all these programs can do is minimize the effects of poverty. There are no public policies that provide the kind of positive personal influences that tipped the scales for Vance... [Hillbilly Elegy] suggests there is no force more powerful for upward mobility than having a network of caring, encouraging people who can provide a personal example and empowering knowledge of the personal habits and decisions that make for a successful life.
Teachers, school social workers, and administrators can certainly be a part of that network. And schools can do more than they realize to promote the kinds of values and personal habits that give students a better shot at success. Perhaps it's time, as Ian Rowe recently argued, for schools to start explicitly teaching students the research-based "Success Sequence:" 1) graduate from high school, 2) get married before having children, 3) don't have kids until after age 21, 4) make sure at least one person in the family works full time. As Rowe points out, "Ninety-eight percent of Americans who follow the success sequence live above the poverty line, and 70 percent enjoy at least middle class incomes, defined as 300 percent or more above that cutoff. For Americans who don't follow that sequence, the picture is reversed."
Why don't we teach students the Success Sequence? Perhaps because in our culture of non-judgmentalism and pseudo-tolerance we shy away from being explicit about championing values like delayed gratification and hard work. But we are doing a great disservice to students by not teaching them the behaviors that clearly make a difference between success and failure in life.
Moreover, schools can do more to engage local communities to create positive social networks for students and families. This includes inviting civic organizations, business leaders, and religious groups into the life of the school, especially when they can engage with individual students who are struggling to be successful. As Yuval Levin lays out so ably in his book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (an excellent companion piece to Hillbilly Elegy, which I reviewed here), these "mediating institutions" are precisely the ones best able to address the needs of families and individuals who need a helping hand. Schools should take the lead in reinvigorating local communities on behalf of students and families.
We don't need to give up on public policies as mechanism for addressing economic opportunity and social mobility. Some of the most exciting work being done on this front is emerging from new think tanks and advocacy groups like the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOP), which focuses specifically on policies that have maximum benefit for the working class, but with an emphasis on subsidiarity, local solutions, and genuine choice and empowerment for low-income families. But one of the lessons of Hillbilly Elegy is that there is no substitute for the power of personal relationships and personal examples of successful living for helping a kid transcend his circumstances without coming to despise the very people who gave him life. While there may be limits to what schools can do in this regard, the sky is the limit in terms of how individual educators and engaged local communities can bring hope and possibility, even to hillbilly kids.
Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).
- Education in "The Fractured Republic"
- The New Era of Education has arrived
- The promise - and limitations - of education policy
- Why Knowledge Matters: the most important education book of 2016