Hillbilly is the New Black: Why T&D Professionals Need to Read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”

by Vince Cyboran, Ed.D.


1963:   Q. What do you call a rich hillbilly? A. A Mount William.

2016: Q. What do you call a rich hillbilly? A. J.D. Vance.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming US presidential race, we are now faced with peoples who have once again hitched their hopes onto a set of fatuously flawed candidates. The long slog of a campaign has left us tired and raw, partly due to the incessant picking of our own emotional scabs. What hath we wrought?

We hath wrought a resurgence of interest in Appalachia. Not just the geographic location, but the metaphorical brand, the polar opposite of Brooklyn. We are once again dumbstruck, blindsided by the rage of a ridiculed, mostly forgotten segment of the American diaspora: whites of Scots-Irish descent hunkered in their “hollers” (aka “hollows”), psychically self-isolated by a mixed-blessing of group identity. Though this time around, Appalachia represents the broader white, working class, the focus of Vance’s book remains Appalachia.

Vance presents us with what social scientists term a “case study.” A case-study memoir with loosely drawn boundaries around the unit of analysis. Vance is an “insider, insider” researcher: He is from Appalachia, and he is writing about Appalachia. He is writing about his own family. He is writing about himself. His story tracks his immediate family from rural Kentucky to industrial Ohio; a migration taken by many others. Vance himself manages to graduate from a state university in Ohio, and, eventually, Yale Law School.  He clerks for a federal judge. He is now a principal with a successful, San Francisco financial firm. He is a frequent guest on television news panels.

To be sure, there is the requisite admixture of abuse, alcoholism, and alienation necessary for a modern memoir. But, it is Vance’s almost think-aloud narrative, his ability to surprise both the reader and himself with his insights that makes this more than a good read. That, and the hard data from research findings about Appalachians. What makes this a necessary read for T&D professionals is the treatment of informal, incidental, and formal learning. What role does social-class identity play—positively or negatively—in our lives? How does a group of people purloined for decades in popular media pull itself up by its collective and individual bootstraps? Vance is “saved” by an amalgam of key family members and by a stint in the Marine Corps.

Popular media has not been kind to these folks. From the Ma and Pa Kettle films of the 1940’s and 50’s, through the unmitigated hegemonic television series from back-in-the-day Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, and The Dukes of Hazzard, to the modern-day, reality TV exploits of Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Duck Dynasty. And, lest we forget, Li’l Abner: The iconographic comic strip that ran for some 43 years in hundreds of U.S. papers, and even in foreign papers! Authored by a Connecticut Yankee, Al Capp, it “had a profound influence on the way the world viewed the American South” (Inge, 2011).

It is believed by some that education is the escalator out of poverty. It is imagined by many that a dramatic, upward change of social class requires a “My-Fair-Lady” miracle: the dedicated workings of Professor Henry Higgins and his colleague, Professor Pickering. The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but as Vance’s MawMaw told him, “…even though you never start a fight, it’s maybe okay to start one if a man insults your family.” (Vance, 2016, p.66).

The term “hillbilly” itself is understood by some to be ugly and derogatory. To others, it is simply who they are. It is the term used unapologetically by Vance. He uses it in much the same way that gay people reclaimed the term “queer.” Currently, the topic and term hold some cachet, particularly in the North. A companion to Vance’s tome is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, also published in 2016. And mostly because of the contentious presidential campaign, hillbillies and white trash—whether or not they are merely attention-getting synonyms for a subsection of the white, working class—are “hot.” But nothing remains “hot” for long. Hopefully, we will learn and do something useful this time around.  We ignore hillbillies–and white trash–at our own peril.

Question: How do social class and class identity affect learner analyses?

Thomas Inge, “Li’l Abner, Snuffy, Pogo, and Friends: The South in the American Comic Strip,” Southern Quarterly (2011) 48#2 pp 6–74. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li%27l_Abner. Accessed October 31, 2016.


  • Experiential learning through the MG20 summit produces leaders capable of combating crucial global problems. https://www.knovva.com/

  • Professor Cyboran, thank you so much for the book recommendation. Having moved to the States only a few years ago I am still discovering all the cultural nuances, and history told in personal stories is one of the best experiences to do so, in my opinion.

    I believe that class identity pays a significant role in learner analysis, as some groups simply do not have access to certain things others take for granted. In childhood education there is also bullying and cliques. Growing up in post-Soviet Russia with rapidly increasing divide among the haves and the have-nots I went to a school that required a uniform for that particular reason – to equalize everyone in a class, making sure that at least clothes were not a point of contention. I would be curious to discover how this is addressed at a Chicago school Janell has described in her comment…

    Thank you for a very insightful post!

  • A dear friend of mine just spoke to me about this book. I found these topics to be of great interest. One of my grandfathers regularly referred to himself as a hillbilly (without the negative connotation-more like a designated title based on his upbringing). The comment about considering learning as informal, incidental, and formal all have value. My grandmother, who is now 84, went to college at the age of 60 and graduated with her two-year degree in Business Administration. We were never very close, and though I have never looked to her for specific advice, she gave me great insight last fall, concerning a particular situation. Some of the ladies I worked with in a former role, few if any were educated, but they had a tremendous amount of life experiences that provided differing perceptions and understanding that brought so much to my life. With that said, yes, learning has many different forms, each form encompassing great value. In many ways I do believe that education CAN be an escalator out of poverty, but one also has to have the wherewithal to make something of it and be able to apply their education. They would need to stretch themselves to become something beyond their environment, always remembering where they came from and hopefully able to remain involved in that community to help bring others along with them, advancing groups of people, and impacting their community in a positive way, not just themselves. I think that social-class does have an impact on our lives. One of my friends and I have been researching preschools for our children who are the same age. We are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum regarding social-class. It is fascinating, exciting, as well as heartbreaking to see the various options available to kids in the city of Chicago. Remember the saying, “Money can’t buy you love”? Well it can buy higher quality educational experiences. We did find one private school in Chicago that offers tuition options based on income. They do this in order to offer a high quality, well-rounded, private school education option to a low-income family as well as a high-income family and others in between. This also helps to encourage diversity, which they see as an essential component in education as well as their core values. This is a wonderful reminder- the importance of working with community organizations to serve and or give to causes that address issues such as these.

  • The issue about education and earning has always been a contentious one among the working class. How much of education one needs to earn a decent living in today’s America actually varies from profession to profession. There are professions such as medicine and sciences that require higher educational level for effective performance than others that only require on the job pick-up knowledge and mastery of processes to be of optimal performance. In the past, how much one makes is a function of two things: first how well is the organization doing, and second scarcity of labor. These assertion has changed greatly in the modern day in part, with the introduction of internet technology that has made it possible to move the chunk of the works on the internet where workers can be scattered across boundary lines.

  • “It is believed by some that education is the escalator out of poverty.” This line really stood out to me as I have been taught this before I even knew what the word education meant. My mom has always instilled in all of her children to work hard and strive for the best in school so that one day we wont have to “want” for anything. As an individual that is headed towards receiving my masters, i must say that there are individuals with no degree, or a lesser degree that makes more than i DO. I also have witnessed more and more jobs relying less on a degree and more on experience. No I have come to learn a degree is nothing without experience.

    • I believe that in many fields, the two go together. For example, in the field of Training & Development, we often see job ads that have an education requirement of a master’s degree, and they want experience. The issue with pay and degrees has long been a challenge. When trade unions were in their heyday (60’s and 70’s), many workers with high school diplomas earned more than their college-educated, white-collar counterparts. The field of Education–particularly Higher Education–is in the midst of a shakeup, partly because of the issue you bring up.

  • Black such as Black clothing or is this meant to mean Black issues or Black people?

Leave a Reply to Vince Cyboran Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s