By now, everyone is familiar with the Great Divide laid bare by voters in 2016. A cottage industry of journalism and sociology has sprung up seeking to understand the people and problems fueling discontent in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere – from books such as J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” to a slew of road-trip articles that feature interviews at diners in faded Rust Belt towns.
As a media guy, I’ve done my share of these reports in times past, riding trains across the US, driving blue highways, knocking on doors in inner cities, chatting up strangers. Honestly, it’s the best part of journalism. The people you meet are interesting, the scenery is fresh, the food delicious. I’ve always completed such an assignment with more hope than I began it with.
Regional differences are always evident – from work ethics to political views, religious beliefs to commitment to education. Regional differences can be good. They counterbalance groupthink and moderate the fads and excesses of prevailing culture. People and ideas that emerge from backwaters have a way of upsetting the world for the better, as imperial Rome found out 2,000 years ago. But if differences are based on inequality, divides can deepen and the potential for misunderstanding, even conflict, can grow.
The big issue facing the US, the European Union, and every nation larger than a city-state is how to preserve the healthy aspects of regional diversity and local autonomy while ensuring that no group feels left out for too long. The spread of economic opportunity is crucial. Safety nets are necessary. None of those factors, however, is as important as the guarantee of a first-rate education.
All children are born locally, after all. All have global potential – whether as future workers, inventors, artists, consumers, or just as citizens. A student in a school that doesn’t have up-to-date computers (see this Monitor cover story), that can’t afford to recruit the best teachers, or that fails to provide science, technology, engineering, and math training is at a distinct disadvantage. So is the community the student lives in.
By all means, let’s preserve local differences. Let’s honor local norms and values. But when it comes to education, let’s make sure that local never means less than the best. In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Mr. Vance is candid about the problems afflicting the white working-class community he came from. Some of those problems are the result of factors beyond local control – shifting economics, technological disruption – but many can be solved if parents, teachers, and communities pull together to provide the best education possible for their children and the best home environment possible to support that education.
Education changed Vance’s life. It changed mine and probably yours. It has the potential to awaken any child to possibility. It equips young people with the tools to improve and adapt throughout their lives. Education can remake struggling communities. It is the bridge across the Great Divide.