How to lib­er­ate chil­dren from ‘per­pet­ual ado­les­cence’

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John R. Coyne Jr. John R. Coyne Jr., a for­mer White House speech­writer, is co-au­thor of “Strictly Right: Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. and the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Move­ment” (Wi­ley).

THE VANISHING AMER­I­CAN ADULT: OUR COM­ING-OF-AGE CRI­SIS — AND HOW TO RE­BUILD A CUL­TURE OF SELF-RE­LIANCE By Ben Sasse St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, 306 pages

“Ibe­lieve our en­tire na­tion is in the midst of a col­lec­tive com­ing of age cri­sis with­out par­al­lel in our his­tory,” writes Ben Sasse, ju­nior sen­a­tor from Ne­braska and for­mer pres­i­dent of Mid­land Univer­sity.

“We are liv­ing in an Amer­ica of per­pet­ual ado­les­cence. Our kids sim­ply don’t know what an adult is … 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’s theirs.”

To­day’s cul­ture of “per­pet­ual ado­les­cence” is man­i­fested in a va­ri­ety of ways. Dur­ing the end­less health-care de­bates, some of us were star­tled to hear 26-year olds re­ferred to as “chil­dren,” be­ing car­ried on their par­ents’ in­sur­ance. (Many of the men with whom I served in the Ma­rine Corps had com­pleted their sec­ond full en­list­ments at 26.)

Sen. Sasse’s con­cerns are im­me­di­ate and di­rect. The fa­ther of three, he and his wife Melissa want their chil­dren “to ar­rive at adult­hood as full formed, vi­va­cious, ap­peal­ing, re­silient, prob­lem–solv­ing souls who see them­selves as called to love and serve their neigh­bors.” His pur­pose here is to sug­gest ways in which sim­i­larly mo­ti­vated par­ents can bring this about, in large part by shar­ing the ap­proach he and his wife are tak­ing in rais­ing their own chil­dren.

Gen­er­ally, the ob­jec­tive is to give his chil­dren “a fight­ing chance to be­come pro­duc­tive adults” and to “in­cul­cate the val­ues and be­liefs … at the heart of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence since our found­ing.”

The Sasse ap­proach is or­ga­nized around five broad themes: lib­er­ate the kids from “the tyranny of the present” by over­com­ing peer cul­ture; teach them to value hard work (he sees to it that his chil­dren spend sum­mers work­ing on ranches and farms); and dis­cour­age ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion, es­pe­cially con­sump­tion of “ex­or­bi­tant amounts of me­dia.”

(A cau­tion here: There’s some­thing in­her­ently ir­ri­tat­ing in what some­times seems like a whole gen­er­a­tion to­tally im­mersed in var­i­ous de­vices and gadgets. But as the stock mar­ket and Sil­i­con Val­ley demon­strate, what seems like idle­ness and inat­ten­tion may be a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with new tech­nolo­gies, with which a new gen­er­a­tion could be build­ing the world’s post-in­dus­trial eco­nomic fu­ture.)

The two fi­nal el­e­ments in the Sasse ap­proach are to en­cour­age travel, pri­mar­ily to ex­pe­ri­ence other ideas and cul­tures; and en­sure that the chil­dren be­come truly lit­er­ate, pri­mar­ily by read­ing and dis­cussing a se­lec­tion of writ­ings from the best of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture up through the great books that were once the sta­ples of fresh­men and sopho­more cour­ses at lib­eral arts col­leges across the coun­try.

Mr. Sasse writes well and en­ter­tain­ingly, with wit and eru­di­tion, but never pedan­tic in ad­vanc­ing his ideas. And those ideas have great merit. But many par­ents would have prob­lems with im­ple­ment­ing some of them.

For in­stance, Mr. Sasse and his wife live in Ne­braska, but are home­school­ing their chil­dren as they com­mute weekly to Wash­ing­ton. This re­quires money and flex­i­ble jobs that of­fer a great deal of free time — the kind of jobs, time and re­sources that most Amer­i­can work­ing par­ents just don’t have. Sim­i­larly, the same hard­work­ing fam­i­lies, with both par­ents hold­ing down jobs, would have lit­tle time or money for the type of travel Mr. Sasse ad­vo­cates.

That’s in no way to di­min­ish the reality of Mr. Sasse’s charge that there’s not just parental fail­ure in­volved in en­cour­ag­ing per­pet­ual ado­les­cence, but a se­ri­ous dere­lic­tion of duty among those in­sti­tu­tions we trust to guide our chil­dren to ma­tu­rity.

But there is one in­sti­tu­tion that still does its duty in this re­gard — the U.S. mil­i­tary. For many of us who en­listed in our teens, the mil­i­tary was our prep school, and a good one. And for those ready for col­lege to­day, there’s a va­ri­ety of ROTC pro­grams and schol­ar­ships.

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, there’s no dis­cus­sion of the mil­i­tary here — sur­pris­ing be­cause one of Mr. Sasse’s he­roes, Theodore Roo­sevelt, was very proud of his mil­i­tary ser­vice and that of his sons, and spoke glow­ingly of the mil­i­tary life. And in fact, Mr. Sasse ends this book with an imag­ined speech by Theodore Roo­sevelt to a grad­u­at­ing high school class, con­structed from ideas, at­ti­tudes, and words taken from var­i­ous writ­ings.

An un­ex­pected con­clu­sion, and per­haps one of the most ef­fec­tive and imag­i­na­tive fea­tures of this highly read­able book — and to the credit of its au­thor, not at all the book you’d ex­pect from a young and per­son­able Re­pub­li­can sen­a­tor with high prospects for the po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

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