Se­na­tor to Amer­i­cans: Grow up

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - REVIEW BY MAURA CASEY Maura Casey is a for­mer edi­to­rial writer for the New York Times.

Ben Sasse is a brave man. In his new book, “The Van­ish­ing Amer­i­can Adult,” the Repub­li­can se­na­tor from Ne­braska makes it clear that he has had enough of our non­sense and we had all bet­ter shape up. Sasse rips into an in­creas­ingly he­do­nis­tic, shal­low and plea­sure-seek­ing Amer­i­can culture that is pro­duc­ing a gen­er­a­tion of ig­no­rant, pas­sive young adults who don’t read, have no grasp of Amer­i­can civics, don’t em­brace work and don’t know how to do much of any­thing be­cause their meek he­li­copter par­ents have both ap­plauded and waited on the lit­tle dar­lings for far too long, to their detri­ment and to the peril of our shared fu­ture.

“We are living in an Amer­ica of per­pet­ual ado­les­cence,” Sasse writes. “Our kids sim­ply don’t know what an adult is any­more — or how to be­come one. Many don’t see a rea­son even to try. Per­haps more prob­lem­atic, the older gen­er­a­tions have for­got­ten that we need to plan to teach them. It’s our fault more than it is theirs.”

Sasse sprin­kles the book with oc­ca­sional dis­claimers that how­ever much he may be crit­i­ciz­ing, if not lam­bast­ing, mil­len­ni­als, his true wrath is re­served for the par­ents rather than their sloth­ful prog­eny. But I don’t buy it. Sasse of­fers oc­ca­sional sto­ries from his ten­ure as pres­i­dent of Mid­land University in Fre­mont, Neb., and seems ea­ger to point out that the mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing “needy, undis­ci­plined, cod­dled, pre­sump­tu­ous.” Af­ter two decades of hav­ing their lives mi­cro­man­aged and chore­ographed for “play­dates, dance prac­tices, ex­tra tu­tor­ing for stan­dard­ized tests and col­lege en­trance ex­ams, mu­sic lessons, martial arts, se­lect soc­cer and travel base­ball, track meets, swim meets, art classes, lan­guage en­rich­ment and all the rest, it should come as no sur­prise that the kids have only the vaguest idea of how to make de­ci­sions for them­selves. All that many of them have ever had to do by age 18 is to be dressed and in the car at the ap­pointed hour.”

But Amer­ica is a coun­try where nearly 1 in 3 chil­dren live in poverty and pre­sum­ably mil­lions more are part of fam­i­lies who never had the money or the ac­cess for help with col­lege en­trance ex­ams, and whose “lan­guage en­rich­ment” oc­curs in bilin­gual house­holds. With this state­ment and oth­ers like it (“Al­most all of us live within walk­ing or short driv­ing dis­tance of a su­per­mar­ket with two dozen brands of bread, twenty-six kinds of ham, thirty-one kinds of mus­tard, more than forty va­ri­eties of may­on­naise, and let­tuce from mul­ti­ple con­ti­nents”), Sasse gives the im­pres­sion that his book is in­tended as a warning siren only for those with in­comes in the top 20 per­cent. It shouldn’t be.

Sasse, with a doc­tor­ate in his­tory and a back­ground more var­ied than many oth­ers in the Se­nate, is too smart not to per­ceive the plight of the work­ing poor or, to cite an ex­am­ple en­tirely ab­sent from these pages, the chal­lenges faced by a high school ju­nior who is al­ready work­ing 20 hours a week to help his mother pay the rent. While the book ig­nores that de­mo­graphic, Sasse’s over­ar­ch­ing point is a good one. “They [teenagers] need di­rec­tion about how to ac­quire the habits es­sen­tial for nav­i­gat­ing adult­hood and ex­pe­ri­ences that in­tro­duce and in­still those habits.” We need young peo­ple who read, and read well; who are grounded in civics and his­tory; who un­der­stand hard work and en­gage in it; who are self-re­liant; who are not cap­tive to ram­pant con­sumerism; and who are in­flu­enced by peo­ple other than, and far older than, their peers. We need, in short, to pre­pare our chil­dren for adult­hood.

His vi­sion for how to ac­com­plish those goals makes up the text and bul­leted lists at the end of most chap­ters. Many sug­ges­tions are inar­guable. De­spite the thou­sands of hours chil­dren spend in school, many of life’s most wor­thy and deep­est ed­u­ca­tional lessons oc­cur far be­yond the school­house walls, and we adults should help young peo­ple seek out such lessons. Our view of “pub­lic” should be sep­a­rate from the mere gov­ern­men­tal and should in­clude a recog­ni­tion of shared, com­mon and very pub­lic prob­lems, such as help­ing our kids be­come in­creas­ingly re­spon­si­ble.

Sasse points to his 14-year-old daugh­ter Cor­rie’s for­ma­tive time work­ing on a ranch as Ex­hibit A for his be­lief (and, I would think, that of most par­ents) that man­ual la­bor is im­por­tant for all teens to ex­pe­ri­ence. Con­sum­ing less, know­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween needs and wants, and re­duc­ing reliance on the In­ter­net and any­thing with glow­ing screens are all im­por­tant lessons not just to im­part to the young, but for adults to model. Chap­ter 8 con­tains sug­ges­tions for what should con­sti­tute a ba­sic list of 60 “life-changing” books to have at home. The choices are some­thing we can all ar­gue about, but there is lit­tle de­bate that a house with books — whether the vol­umes are owned or bor­rowed from a pub­lic li­brary — of­fers any child a built-in ad­van­tage.

Sasse reaches into his doc­tor­ate and in­tel­lec­tual back­ground to bol­ster his ar­gu­ments and his so­lu­tions, quot­ing widely from Alexis de Toc­queville, the English au­thor Dorothy Say­ers, Thomas Jef­fer­son, Teddy Roo­sevelt, Ed­ward Gib­bon, and even the 300 BC philoso­pher Zeno of Ci­tium and many oth­ers to make his points. Though Sasse holds a day job as a U.S. se­na­tor, he avoids pol­icy pre­scrip­tions of any kind, pre­fer­ring to chal­lenge par­ents and side­step par­ti­san­ship.

Yet, at the very same time, he ad­mits the ob­vi­ous: There is a place for broad de­bate and cre­at­ing a frame­work in gov­ern­ment for many of these is­sues. Per­haps that will be Sasse’s next book, in which case I look for­ward to see­ing the in­sights of Zeno of Ci­tium and oth­ers un­leashed upon gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) writes that in “an Amer­ica of per­pet­ual ado­les­cence . . . our kids sim­ply don’t know what an adult is any­more.”

THE VAN­ISH­ING AMER­I­CAN ADULT Our Com­ing-of-Age Cri­sis — and How to Re­build a Culture of Self-Reliance By Ben Sasse St. Martin’s. 306 pp. $27.99

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