Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter
November 16, 2015
“They have lost the narrative of their lives.” Angus Deaton, 2015 Nobel Laureate, Economics
Part I: Why Are So Many White People Killing Themselves?
A recent paper co-authored by Ann Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University contained a stunning finding: between 1999 and 2013 mortality increased for whites aged 45-54 in the United States. The mortality increase “reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States.” The study points to drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, chronic liver disease, and cirrhosis are clear causes of the death spike. Less clear is why so many white people in this demographic are killing themselves. Case and Deaton surmise: this white demographic—turning to opioids, alcohol, and the ultimate painkiller, suicide—is discovering that with “widening income inequality, many [in this] baby boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents.” For a generation of white Americans—truly my fellow Americans, for I fall in into this demographic—despair has taken a lethal grip on their lives.
Case and Deaton’s study shocked a lot of people. But it shouldn’t have. There is already plenty of evidence that despair and drug use are a problem and not just among middle-aged white people. Look at heroin: the average user is young, white and suburban, and a heroin epidemic is ravaging towns and cities all across America. Heroin deaths in Nassau County doubled from 2014 to 2015. Despair, drug use, death—whites, feeling intense pain from the loss of hope, community, and connection are medicating themselves to death. Here’s my point: the children of the generation studied by Case and Deaton are inheriting their parent’s despair. Whereas at one time we as a nation passed on hope to our children, we are now bequeathing despair. And no, I don’t mean parents directly instill hopeless: I mean our nation’s institutions are failing our children by failing to invest in hope by investing in community rebuilding, infrastructure, and education. And this brings me to my real subject—education and hope—and a real world example of how students, using collaborative, problem-oriented critical thinking restored hope to a dying community.
I want to look at a case study that I discovered in a fascinating book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Author Sam Quinones documents the descent of a dying rust belt manufacturing town, Portsmouth, Ohio into OxyContin addiction and then black tar heroin addiction. Quinones’s real story is about recovery, about the town’s sober resurrection and rebuilding. What’s especially relevant here is this resurrection was guided partly by a sociology professor, Scott Douthat, and his students: Dr. Douthat used the drug-addled town as a real-world sociology problem and project: student recommendations led to: a Federal Community Oriented Policing Grant, a floodlight for town park that led to decreased prostitution, money for code inspectors to enforce housing codes, a litter pickup program in which folks on probation cleaned up the town as part of their sentence. The lesson: we can use education to re-build communities, restore faith in democracy and democratic institutions, restore hope in folks for whom the American Dream is dead, and not just the white folks in Ann Case and Angus Deaton’s study, but for people of all races suffering under crushing inequality and lost faith in American democracy. Whatever happened, folks wonder in despair, to We are all created equal?
Note: In Part II, tomorrow, we will look at a Deweyan vision of the community college.
Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee