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'Hillbilly Elegy' sheds light on poverty, educational blind alleys and pathways out
It's possible no book could have been better timed to explain the rise of Donald Trump than "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance, a national best-seller that narrates the author's adrift upbringing in Middletown, Ohio. - photo by Eric Schulzke
It's possible no book could have been better timed to explain the rise of Donald Trump than "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance, a national best-seller that narrates the author's adrift upbringing in Middletown, Ohio.

One of the key features of the youthful Vance's milieu is the lack of educational ambition and achievement. In a book excerpt published in National Review, Vance points to that educational vacuum.

"In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high schools entering freshmen wont make it to graduation," writes Vance. "Most wont graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state. Students dont expect much from themselves, because the people around them dont do very much. Many parents go along with this phenomenon."

Vance, of course, is an affectionate critic of a world he left behind, having graduated from Yale Law School and a become a principal at a technology investment firm. But as with many people, his pathway out of poverty began with the Marine Corps.

"Hillbilly Elegy" has prompted substantial introspection from other writers who came from similar backgrounds. One of the other escapees to weigh in is Stephen Blank, a noted Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author, who reviews "Hillbilly Elegy" for the Huffington Post in light of his own impoverished childhood in a single-parent family in New York.

"The notion of having an idea and building a company was unimaginable," Blank wrote. "We werent dumber than the kids who eventually would populate Silicon Valley, but our career trajectories had been flattened by the limited knowledge and expectations of our cluster, class and culture."

Blank attended and then washed out of college, without ever really knowing what he was there for. Like Vance, Blank found his pathway out in the military, joining the Air Force and gaining technology skills.

This was only after dropping out of college, though.

"But once I made it to college I was lost," Blank writes. "I had none of the discipline, study skills and preparation I needed. After one semester, I dropped out when my girlfriend said, 'Some of us actually want to be here and are working hard to learn something,' and I realized she was right. I had no idea why I was in school. Some small voice in the back of my head said that to survive I needed some sort of structure in my life, and had to learn some marketable skills."

If Vance nails the roots of the Trump voters from a personal-narrative perspective, that job was actually accomplished in 2011 from an analytical perspective when American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote the instant classic "Coming Apart," a debt Vance acknowledges.

In a similar vein, Harvard professor Robert Putnam last year wrote "Our Kids," in which he lamented the increasing separation of communities into well-off, college-educated elites who now rarely have contact with poor and often dysfunctional families across the tracks, though Putnam is careful to point out structural economic changes over the past generation that helped push down these families.

Vance's "Elegy" is must reading for education reformers, argues the Fordham Institute's Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News & World Report, noting that all too often the education reform and "achievement gap" dialogue centers on minority students in urban centers, ignoring the equally pervasive challenges of the rural, and often white, poor.

"It is a reminder of the roles that institutions play (and fail to play) in the lives of our young people, and that if a primary goal of education reform is to arrest generational poverty, that is not a race-based movement," Pondiscio writes. "Poverty is a 'family tradition' among Vance's people, white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who were once 'day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times.'"
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