How to restore Amer­i­can self-re­liance

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

When in the Se­nate cham­ber, Ben Sasse, a Ne­braska Repub­li­can, sits by choice at the desk once used by Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han. New York’s schol­arse­n­a­tor would have rec­og­nized that Sasse has pub­lished a book of po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy in the form of a guide to par­ent­ing.

Moyni­han un­der­stood that pol­i­tics is down­stream from cul­ture, which flows through fam­i­lies. Sasse, a Yale his­tory PhD whose well-fur­nished mind re­sem­bles Moyni­han’s, un­der­stands this:

Amer­ica is a creedal na­tion made not by his­tory’s churn­ing but by the de­ci­sion of philo­sophic Founders. Mod­ern Amer­ica, with its en­er­vat­ing comforts — in­clud­ing cos­set­ing par­ents — and present-minded ed­u­ca­tion that pro­duces cul­tural am­ne­sia, must de­lib­er­ately make its cit­i­zens. This re­quires con­struct­ing a menu of dis­ci­plines, rig­ors and in­struc­tions con­ducive to the grit, self-re­liance and self-pos­ses­sion re­quired for demo­cratic cit­i­zen­ship.

Sasse’s ar­gu­ment in “The Van­ish­ing Amer­i­can Adult: Our Com­ing-of-Age Cri­sis and How to Re­build a Cul­ture of Self-Re­liance” is not an­other scold­ing of the young. Rather, he re­grets how the no-longer-young have crip­pled the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion with kind­ness, flinch­ing from the truth that the good pain of hard phys­i­cal work pro­duces the “scar tis­sue of char­ac­ter.”

Ado­les­cents spend­ing scores of hours a week on screen time with their de­vices ac­quire “a zom­bie-like pas­siv­ity” that saps their “agency.” This makes them sus­cep­ti­ble to per­pet­ual ado­les­cence, and ill-suited to the ve­loc­ity of life in an ac­cel­er­at­ing world of shorter job du­ra­tions and the ne­ces­sity of per­pet­ual learn­ing. In this world, Sasse warns, “col­lege grad­u­ates will change not only jobs but in­dus­tries an av­er­age of three times by age thirty.”

Child­hood obe­sity has in­creased 500 per­cent in five decades. For “the most med­i­cated gen­er­a­tion of youth in his­tory,” sales of ADHD drugs have in­creased 8 per­cent a year since 2010. Re­search shows that teenage tex­ters ex­hibit ad­dic­tive, sleep-de­priv­ing be­hav­iors akin to those of habit-deny­ing ad­dic­tive gam­blers. Teenagers clutch­ing their de­vices “are spend­ing nearly two-thirds of their wak­ing hours with their eyes tied down and bod­ies sta­tion­ary.” Five mil­lion Amer­i­cans, many of them low-skilled young men, play 45 hours of video games per week.

In the long-run­ning ri­valry be­tween the re­al­ist and ro­man­tic views of hu­man na­ture, Sasse is firmly with the for­mer. This aligns him against those who be­lieve that school­ing should be “a sub­sti­tute for par­ents” as life’s “defin­ing for­ma­tive in­sti­tu­tion.” In the pro­gres­sive view of ed­u­ca­tion with which the philoso­pher John Dewey im­bued the United States’ pri­mary and sec­ondary schools, par­ents “with their sup­pos­edly petty in­ter­ests in their chil­dren as in­di­vid­u­als” are deemed ret­ro­grade in­flu­ences, hin­der­ing schools’ mis­sion of mak­ing mal­leable young peo­ple out­fit­ted with the proper “so­cial con­scious­ness.” Schools should em­brace the need of “con­trol­ling” stu­dents and “the in­flu­ences by which they are con­trolled.” Par­ents must be marginal­ized lest they in­ter­fere with ed­u­ca­tion un­der­stood, as Sasse with­er­ingly says, as “not pri­mar­ily about help­ing in­di­vid­u­als, but rather about mold­ing the col­lec­tive.”

When the United States was founded, Sasse the his­to­rian re­minds us, “no­body com­muted to work. Peo­ple worked where they lived.” Be­fore the “gen­er­a­tional seg­re­ga­tion” of mod­ern life, chil­dren saw adults work­ing and were ex­pected to pitch in. The re­place­ment of “the gritty par­ent­ing of early Amer­ica” by “a more nur­tur­ing ap­proach” co­in­cided with the rise of mass school­ing. In 1870, fewer than 2 per­cent of Amer­i­cans had high school diplo­mas. An av­er­age of one new high school a day was built be­tween 1890 and 1920, and by 1950, more than 75 per­cent of Amer­i­cans were high school grad­u­ates.

Sasse, 45, a for­mer uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent, re­grets nei­ther nur­tur­ing nor mass ed­u­ca­tion. He does re­gret the fail­ure to sup­ple­ment these soft­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ences with rig­ors sought out for their tough­en­ing ef­fects. With an­ces­tral Ne­braska mem­o­ries of hard life on the high plains, Sasse thinks the gen­er­a­tion com­ing of age “has be­gun life with far too few prob­lems.” He has tried to spare his daugh­ters this dis­abling as­pect of mod­ern life. When his 14-year-old daugh­ter Corrie spent a month at a cat­tle ranch, her texts in­cluded:

“Kids learned that ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion works 60% of the time. Then the ‘clean-up bull’ gets called to duty.” “I’ve gone 4 days w/out a sin­gle ‘elec­tri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence’ with a fence. I might not have elec­tro­cu­tion in my fu­ture.” “We’re also cas­trat­ing bulls to­day.”

The United States, Sasse says, needs to teach its chil­dren what life used to teach ev­ery­one, and what F. Scott Fitzger­ald told his daugh­ter: “Noth­ing any good isn’t hard.” What will be hard is the fu­ture of Amer­i­cans who do not cul­ti­vate a tough­ness that goes against the grain of to­day’s Amer­ica.

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