In his provocative memoir “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” author J.D. Vance describes his childhood upbringing in Middletown, Ohio. Heavily influenced by his family’s Kentucky roots and their “hillbilly culture,” Vance uses his firsthand experiences with poverty to argue that these Appalachian, working-class values have ultimately impacted rural communities for the worse.
That’s the question we should really take away from “Hillbilly Elegy”: Is the hillbilly in us Kentuckians really to blame for historically poor performance in rural schools, or is it something more?
Part of “Hillbilly Elegy’s” popularity comes from its appeal to readers from across cultural and political spectrums. In the memoir, Vance takes a fatalistic view of poverty, arguing that the people of Appalachia are personally responsible for their lack of educational and economic opportunities.
Vance argues that “hillbilly culture” leads to social deterioration and learned helplessness, and claims that the working poor have suffered less from economic insecurity than we think—in other words, they lack economic opportunities because of their own laziness.
But as a rural Kentucky native myself, I have to challenge some of Vance’s conclusions about the rural underclass, and that includes rural students as well. I think that there is value in exploring Vance’s argument to see how “hillbilly culture” might affect our students’ achievement in ways we don’t necessarily notice. However, I disagree that “hillbilly culture” alone is enough to explain the chronic underachievement of rural students.
Roughly 61 percent of my district’s students were on either free or reduced lunch last year. Homework is virtually non-existent in my classroom because many students do not have access to the resources they may need—like an adequate Internet connection—to be successful.
Over 900 public schools operate Title I programs, which accounts for about 75 percent of all public schools in the commonwealth. Even though I was fortunate enough to have never experienced poverty growing up, its influence permeates our communities, schools and way of life profoundly here in Kentucky, just as “Hillbilly Elegy” depicts.
But while “Hillbilly Elegy” is effective at illustrating the ways that poverty creates unique challenges for students, I tend to believe that Kentucky teachers would agree with me when I argue against Vance’s claim that rural, “hillbilly” culture is alone to blame for students’ lack of social mobility.
In spite of Vance’s own journey from rags to riches, he fails to acknowledge the role that structural barriers play in hindering the success of poor, rural students.
While Vance should be applauded for the hard work and dedication it took to escape his own circumstances, I find it really unlikely—and a bit insulting, honestly—that Vance argues for “personal responsibility” as a real solution for escaping generational poverty. After all, how can students pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they don’t have any boots?
Education is a cultural experience
When students enter the classroom each day, they bring with them prior knowledge which largely stem from their lived experiences—as well as the systems and structures that influenced those experiences.
As misguided as “Hillbilly Elegy” might be, I think it at least succeeds in moving the conversation forward and suggesting that rural teachers should think critically about the way in which education relates to students’ cultural backgrounds. However, if we could look beyond the curtains of “hillbilly culture” to see the inner workings of inequality in rural communities, we might be able to start thinking about genuine, attainable solutions.
And perhaps, we may not need that elegy after all.