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Presidential endorsement: on the merits of J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

May 5, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Sophie Washington

This past week I read a book recommended by a person who I know more intimately through social media than through conversation. He’s someone I view with a mixture of admiration, curiosity and deep respect. I was nervous that he would recommend a book that was more statistics or Latin phrases than regular English sentences, but nonetheless eager to read anything that influences the man who so profoundly influences us at Bowdoin. My recommender’s name is Clayton Rose (he has a terrific Instagram).

President Rose recommended me a book that is not only full of regular English sentences, but is voraciously readable. It’s also incredibly popular: “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance, was on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for over 26 weeks. It’s best described as a sociologically-informed memoir by a man who grew up in poverty in the Ohio Rustbelt, a self-identified hillbilly who both suffered abuse and experienced the deepest love from his family members before joining the Marines, attending Yale Law School and getting a job in Silicon Valley. Of course, that’s a radical oversimplification.

Reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” I winced at Vance’s overt conservatism, especially surrounding his discussions of race. When he described the effects that growing up in poverty can have on a child, I thought of my dad. I reflected on the narratives of Trump’s election while unpacking Vance’s simultaneous plea for and critique of the poor white community in which he grew up. And I considered the positive implications of having a college president who has been influenced by Vance’s experiences, especially those at Yale Law School.

When Vance arrived at Yale Law, he was a young man who had barely graduated high school, gone to Iraq with the Marines and attended Ohio State University. He realized that everyone who surrounded him was rich. Vance is the first in his immediate family to attend college—the only one in his extended family to receive a second degree. In a bitter reminder of Bowdoin’s ongoing discussions about class, Vance remembers meeting friends who were the children of surgeons and corporate lawyers who self-identified as ‘middle class.’

Among all of the adversities that he overcame, the struggle of ‘migrating’ from poverty to the upper-class world of Yale goes notably without discussion. Vance quickly learns the importance of building a network—only to realize, at an interviewing event, that he doesn’t know which of his three spoons he should use first. One of his professors doesn’t understand why students from state colleges are accepted to the law school (Vance goes on to ace the class). He hides the truth of his upbringing and his challenging family background from his classmates. He is a hillbilly in a strange land.

Amidst all the pain, power and politics in “Hillbilly Elegy”—which is most compelling in its honest, straightforward autobiography—Vance shows how elite institutions are shutting out poor students and not supporting the ones who make it in. As I prepare to graduate, I am intrigued by the role our administration will continue to play in the growing conversation about class at Bowdoin.

Vance himself notes that he thinks college admission is not the most important issue for poor students—he sees problems as beginning far earlier, with the ‘hillbilly culture’ of violence and downward spirals that marked his family. But at Bowdoin, we still need to do better.

I didn’t agree with all of Vance’s conclusions, but I was drawn by the complexity and genuineness of his narrative. Thank you to President Rose for the recommendation. Bowdoin is lucky to have a president who does as much as he does—and who is also well-read.

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