So far, the chief criticism of Coming Apart is that I don’t acknowledge globalization and the disappearance of high-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs in creating the problems that afflict white working-class America. I have responded to that criticism elsewhere, but my technical arguments can’t respond to the larger myopia: The people making such arguments are incredibly out of touch with life as it is lived in working-class America (which relates to another theme of Coming Apart: the isolation of the elite). No one who is around those neighborhoods at ground level is under any illusion about the problems I describe.
Readers who don’t live in such neighborhoods can get a sense of what’s going on by engaging in conversation with the guys (or gals) who next come to your house to fix the wiring or clean the gutters or repair the deck. Ask about their friends and neighbors—who’s getting jobs in this economy, who’s not, and why. If you hire someone who has a small business, ask him what it’s like to try to find workers who will show up on time and do a good job. Start by saying that surely they have no problem in an economy with eight percent unemployment, and listen to them laugh. Or talk to teachers in schools that serve white working-class America. Here’s an email, edited to preserve anonymity, that I got yesterday.
I have never been so moved to write to an author, but after I finished your book, I had to share my response. I am a teacher who has lived in many parts of the country. In college, I spent one summer as a nanny for a family in Rye, NY. I have taught at a 50/50 black/white private high school in St. Louis. I have taught in a private school outside of Georgetown, Texas, where a couple of my students were the grandchildren of one of the former presidents of Yale. Then we decided to move back to my grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma. I taught in more of a Fishtown in Kansas, and am currently teaching in a school in a small town (shall I say Lower Fishtown?) in Oklahoma. Here you’d have to look hard to find a true nuclear family, no one on the school board has a full-time job, and last we calculated, we weren’t sure any of them had high school diplomas.
I have marveled at the contrasts in the people in some of these places: Rye & Georgetown vs. small town Kansas & Oklahoma. Your book really hit home. Definitely these kids where I now teach come from broken families. Religion does not seem to play an important part in their lives, although most of them would claim to be Christian. They are extremely dishonest. Many have blatantly lied to me, and there are few that I feel I can trust. Work ethic is a huge struggle. These kids have no concept of the upper end of society where kids are competing for the top colleges, where parents go over their graded assignments and argue for every point. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a parent examine an assignment where I am now. Some students have observed how their parents and grandparents have managed to survive with no one working, so why should they bother to work? They have nicer cell phones than I do. How much of this attitude can we as a society sustain? If this little town is one of many—and I suspect it is—the future is bleak.
As I was looking over some online comments regarding Coming Apart, I was very disappointed at how few people get it. They keep falling back on the economic disadvantages and don’t want to face the fact that morality could matter. Their world (along with Rye & Georgetown) is so far removed from Fishtown. They have no idea. No idea about these kids that despite their opportunity at an education, don’t take it, even if it is at a Fishtown School. In my current school in Oklahoma, virtually any of these kids could go to college for free, but none of them have the model of work ethic to do the work that it takes.
I’m not cherry-picking. I have gotten other emails like that—but few that so graphically express the cultural divide that has opened up between classes that not so long ago shared the same values.