A Department Of Hillbilly Studies?

Today’s university seems obsessively compassionate about the downtrodden, far more than the usual academic Marxist celebration of exploited workers. Entire departments – African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Latino/a Studies – strive to uplift those suffering from white male heterosexual oppressors. In African and Latin American Studies indigenous people are always blameless “good guys” while under-graduates are relentlessly implored, usually with academic credit, to “make a difference” or “work for social change,” i.e., rallying deadbeat tenants against predatory slum landlords. English Departments – even History Departments–increasingly celebrate heretofore repressed “voices” of the forcefully silenced. Schools of Social Work and Education now require taking vows to advance “social and economic justice” in order to graduate. Hard-head Business Schools are hardly immune – mandatory Business Ethics courses might teach that cowboy capitalism must be sympathetic to those unable to compete in cruel marketplaces.
Matters are not, however, as morally black and white as they seem. Fervent compassion for the repressed, suppressed, disadvantaged, disabled, stigmatized, marginalized, exploited and all the rest is selective, and this selectivity is hardly accidental or random. In a nutshell, liberal academics are wonderfully compassionate, caring and sympathetic but only for those who seem eternally mired in dependency to be ameliorated via expanding state power. If victims are disinclined to demand this expanded state power to rescue them from misery, then their consciousness must be raised so these newly “educated” souls can lobby for income re-distribution or some other handed-down benefit.

A class in black politics, for example, rarely dwells on Booker T. Washington’s plea for self-reliance or recognizes that black Caribbean immigrants prosper via hard work, thrift and delayed gratification while shunning politics. This message is unspeakable heresy and, “inauthentic.” A would-be professor expressing such views would never even be hired. The orthodox recipe for accomplishment is endlessly repeated semester after semester: mobilize, vote for candidates promising government handouts, demand new entitlements and otherwise crave measures to further deepen dependency on officialdom. One does not create wealth; one gets wealth by demanding it from on high. In this odd universe, a multiple choice question: “The best route to college admission is (a) study hard or (b) take political action against elites for stronger affirmative action” will be correctly answered with “b.”


This selectivity will, naturally, be denied. But, consider the academic unpopularity of a group that in many ways is economically and socially comparable to most echt downtrodden: Hillbillies (a/k/a White Trash, Trailer Park Trash, Appalachians). Good-thinking academics despise this group, and are absolutely convinced that these beer-bellied, ignorant, bigoted, religious fanatics put Bush-worse-than Hitler in the White House. These are the folk who love Stand-by-your Man country music, are avid gun owners who hunt, drive full-sized American pick-ups, wear crude sexist tee-shirts, follow NASCAR, drink cheap domestic beer, are aficionados of chicken-fried steak and, most critically for our purposes, are patriots unimpressed by anti-Americanism, post-modern theories of social reality, the primacy of race, place and gender in interpreting texts (i.e., reality) and all the other ephemera running wild in today’s academy. Politically, while they may be vulnerable to racist demagogues, and have been known to feed at the public trough, they are – to use the German word lacking an English equivalent – unwillig (difficult to manage). A Department of Hillbilly Studies boggles the mind even in today’s loopy academic environment.

One can only imagine a few Good Ole Boys wandered into a Duke classroom where our liberal champion of the oppressed explains how America is the world’s number one terrorist, how soaring prosperity brings dangerous income inequality, why the apparent free market in ideas is just a oligarchic ruse and why the nefarious oil companies block public transportation so yahoos can still drive their gas-guzzling vintage red/orange street legal 1969 Dodge Chargers R/T with a 426 Hemi (bedecked with Confederate flags, no less). Unlike grade-grubbers and those admitted to reverse historic under-representation, the Good Ole Boys not only reject this nonsense, but this repugnance would be immediate and vocal. Bo and Cooter would be more than “offended;” they would be downright pissed, and not shy about defending General Lee’s honor (the car, not the Confederate war hero) or America. Nor would this outrage be manageable with the usual academic arguments – Bo is oblivious to deconstructing texts and all the other mumbo jumbo. If the professor offered a post-colonial interpretation of Iraq, Bo would tell him to take his fat ass back to Russia if he doesn’t like it here. Hard to top that snappy rejoinder. They (and their many cousins) unabashedly admit that they attend college to drink beer and fool around, not promote gender equality. At most Cooter might mumble solidarity with third-wave feminism if he is closing in on the kill in the back seat of his perfectly restored ’57 Chevy Impala. In ways not yet understood by science, Hillbillies have been vaccinated against PC nonsense and therefore immune to all the professorial entreatments. (Perhaps some pharmaceutical company might want to investigate this natural immunity.) They certainly don’t want wooly-headed professors badmouthing their patriotism and religion, let alone telling Bo and Cooter to explore more deeply their inherently ambiguous sexual identities.

The professorial taste for promoting dependency is predictable. Today’s academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, may enjoy comfortable, well-paid lives, but outside the classroom they are largely politically irrelevant. This is a far cry from the 1960s and the Great Society when countless professors were solicited experts, running to and fro, speaking into Princely ears. A CNN sound bite may be the high point of one’s public intellectual career today, and given the failure of past made-in-the-academy advice, even this will be disregarded. The sprawling, invasive EU-style bureaucratic state thus appeals to the clever but politically impotent experts-in-waiting. They would dearly love to counsel Ministers just how to micro-manage family life (perhaps a visiting role model service or redefining “family”) or how salaries could be made to reflect John Rawl’s egalitarian concept of justice, not arbitrary factors such as skill and ambition.

But, government by enlightened professors is unreachable without hordes of those forever dependent on government largess. This is, sad to say, what made the Katrina mess so eye-catching to outraged academics – hundreds of thousands of poor people, mostly African Americans, desperately pleading for Washington’s salvation while the evil “conservative” Republican administration with its self-reliance talk fiddled. A perfect ideological storm! If only FEMA bureaucrats had solicited professor expertise they would have socially constructed a narrative to reconstruct the New Orleans 9th Ward in record time. And the raised consciousness would protect against future floods. Don’t laugh – my obsessively trendy alma mater (Bard College) has a student-run project to rescue Katrina victims by applying the insights of class, race and gender analysis. When telling me about this wonderful idea Bard asked for a contribution but this appeal, alas, fell on deaf ears since I don’t believe in money. Every professor like me knows that “money” is socially constructed, invented by white European males as an instrument of social control to subjugate people of color, as the current sub-prime lending mess demonstrates.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

12 thoughts on “A Department Of Hillbilly Studies?

  1. Long before Designer Luxury Handbagscome to a trend, a handbag from the 14 Century to carry. However, the term came into being in the pocket of the 19 Century. Gradually, the trend has begun to understand the people and by the middle of the 20th Century, many designer brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton to be started to deepen their roots.

  2. My son had one failing grade in four years at Idaho U. It was in a Conflict Management course. He doesn’t say any more than he disagreed with the ideas the professor expounded. I believe it may have been due to his being a straight arrow, sure of himself Eagle Scout and a Marine reservist back from Iraq. Neither is looked highly upon by the PC crowd.

  3. Just went to a showing of Indoctrinate U at a college campus last night. Afterwards, there was a discussion led by a Poli Sci professor.
    It was really disturbing, because the harsh rhetoric actually thrown at students in some courses was toned down or absent. In its place, I heard subtle Newspeak that was very hard to pin down, and therefore even more frightening. It was easy to identify and laugh at the overtly Stalinist prof back in the early ’80s. It’s far more difficult to separate the intellectual wheat from the chaff today, IMO, especially for students, who haven’t had so many years of experience with the fine art of deceptive persuasion.

  4. Notre Dame has a “social justice seminar” program where students go to Appalachia and do some variety of service work. This is, I think, integrated to some extent with their more theoretical training, on class and economic inequality, etc. etc. It’s not entirely true that this group is too uncool and conservative to get any attention from academia.

  5. Professor, my Scotch-Irish grandfather (Mitchell County, NC, where I learned most useful things I know) would take issue with your terminology. He proudly called himself a “Mountain Man. Hillbillies are from W. Va.!”
    However, he would agree whole-heartedly with your premise. A yellow-dog Democrat in a county where they held the Democratic caucus in a phone booth, he was an otherwise intelligent and compassionate man who scratched a decent living from hard scrabble land mainly by an unreal capacity for hard work, and an incredible stubborness. Today’s crop of victims need a transfusion from someone like him, not post-modern pablum.

  6. But we all love “Up-by-your-bootstraps” advice, even though for most poor Americans (fictional Bo and Cooter included) it doesn’t work. The advice does achieve two lesser things though: One, it makes the advice-giver feel oh-so-witty and two, in its failure, it keeps those pesky poor people out of those places really meant for those more comfortable – usually middle- to upper-class whites.
    Middle- and upper-class liberals *and* conservatives love pandering to their poor constituencies while actually doing nothing to help their plight.

  7. An interesting article. I’ve certainly gone alone with the nonsense a professor was spouting to get a better grade. I think this has something to do with why people are shocked (SHOCKED!) to find out how many Americans are conservative or Republican and how many of their coworkers and friends are. Liberals have spent their entire education hearing their beliefs spoken out loud, but conservatives tend not to argue with their liberal teachers. They get good at ignoring idiocy and this carries over into the real world. Liberals do not seem to get this education. Incidentally, an English word with a very similar vibe to unwillig is obstreperous.

  8. My family is from Polk County, TN. You can’t get more hillbilly than that.
    Do you think for one minute my professors gave a shit how poor I was? NO!
    Here’s a modest proposal: Enforced Academic Equality. From each according to his academic merit, to each according to his academic need. Take two points from the 4.0 student and award them to the 0.0 student. One point from the 3.0 student goes to the 1.0 student. Everyone gets a C. We are all average.
    But don’t stop there! No, sir! Take money from the universities with the highest endowments and give it to the poorest public univesities who have none.
    Stop the Ivy League oppression.
    Oh yes, I’m mentally ill also, but my white maleness cancels out any handicap.
    And to top it all off, my damn family fought for the union, and I am of French/Acadian descent.
    Still white? Check. Still have a penis? Check.
    Too damn bad then.

  9. Now, Now, I know that my college gives out minority scholarships to Appalachian students (basically students from certain counties)
    Yes, even the oppressive majority white males have a minority among them.
    Note: as these scholarships are intended to help poorer students go to college I don’t find them as offensive as some of the other minority scholarships, but what sate do you have to be in where a “poor” scholarship has to be defined as a minority one?

  10. From F.A. Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit”: “Moreover, one might wonder whether these intellectuals are not sometimes inspired by resentment that they, knowing better what ought to be done, are paid so much less than those whose instructions and activities in fact guide practical affairs.”

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