Senator to Americans: Grow up
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.
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