Review: The Vanishing American Adult

vanishing american adult

The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Summary: Concerned about the passivity he observes among many emerging adults, the author proposes five character building habits to foster resilient, responsible adults and wisely engaged citizens.

As a college president, Ben Sasse quickly became acquainted with the passivity, fragility and a sense of entitlement in his student body. As a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, he is deeply disturbed at the implications this has for our republic. As a parent, he writes about the steps he thinks he (and we) need to take, beginning in our own families to reverse this trend.

His first three chapters chronicle the problem of endless adolescence, using the story of Peter Pan in Neverland as a metaphor. He describes a generation on more medications, addicted to screens, and for many pornography, as well as living at home longer and marrying later if at all, and intellectually fragile, wanting “safe zones” instead of fighting for free speech. He is not at all convinced that the answer lies with our schools and writes critically of the role John Dewey played in a public school movement that relegated parents and other mediating structures to inferior and subsidiary role in the development of children. He contends most crucially that schools are failing to teach children how to learn, harking back to Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning, and particularly the lost focus on the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Sasse then proposes five habits that he believes may begin to address the deficits he observes:

  1. Fleeing Age Segregation. He believes our society has become highly age segregated, isolating generations from each other, giving emerging adults no contact with life in its different stages, the changes that occur in body and mind, and the realities of death and birth, which he believes it important to witness.
  2. Embrace Work Pain. He observes that many youth never have experiences where they have to persist through pain or struggle to complete a hard task and encourages various volunteer and work experiences from childhood on.
  3. Consume Less. He observes the paradox of material affluence and the stress and lack of happiness that walk hand in hand and proposes steps to defer material gratification to focus on more significant life priorities.
  4. Travel To See. He argues that traveling early and often and learning to travel light exposes one to the world beyond one’s own enclave that helps one define more deeply the values one wants to embrace.
  5. Build a Bookshelf. He argues that America is fundamentally an idea, and that the stock of ideas we accrue from our reading is critical not only to the richness of our own lives but to our citizenship. He describes his process of developing both his own and his children’s “bookshelves” and gives us some interesting reading suggestions.

Sasse makes it clear that this is not a book about policy. But neither is it simply about parenting our children. It is about the polis. He believes what makes America exceptional is its ideas. It is critical to develop a rising generation of people who assume personal responsibility, who can face challenges with resilience, and know how to think rigorously and to engage others ideas with both civility and tenacity. He then concludes the book with imagining what Teddy Roosevelt would say to a high school graduating class.

This is both an engaging and demanding book. Sasse tells stories about his own upbringing, some of the stretching things he did with his friends that shaped him, and about how he and his wife Melissa are raising their children (including experiences one daughter had castrating bulls on a ranch where she worked). With each of his five “habits” he concludes the chapter with practical “stepping stones.”

He is also a person who believes ideas have consequences and devotes significant space in each chapter to the intellectual history of the things he is talking about. This could be off-putting for some, and yet it illustrates his conviction that the ideas we embrace, and that in turn, shape us both individually and collectively, matter. Reading Sasse, you will encounter Augustine, Rousseau, Dewey and Tocqueville, among others.

Sasse is a conservative and has the third most conservative voting record in the Senate. He clearly is one who believes in limited federal government and the importance of local “mediating institutions” and in the critical importance of a virtuous, informed citizenry.  He shares the Republican Party’s suspicion of public education (but advocates for public education may want to listen to his concerns that the role of parents is often usurped by education “experts,” and that more money and more technology often is not translating into better education). But he addresses a phenomenon that has to be of concern to every public official–the character of the rising generation, and how they are being prepared for responsible adulthood.

I don’t think Ben Sasse would mind if you disagree with him. He strikes me as someone who values a good argument. His internal argument, weighing Augustine and Rousseau against each other, suggests that all he would ask is that you give him a good argument in return. That, he would think, is what adults do.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Vanishing American Adult

  1. I need to read this! It is normal for the older generation to criticize the younger, but something has changed. I host students (many international) but also American university students in the summer. And we have observed these changes. It makes us less willing to host! We must have “rules”, that we did not have in the past, because it was not necessary in the past. Entitlement, lack of self-awareness or sense of responsibility about living in a home, helplessness, fragility, etc. I realized last summer when the American students told me their parent’s ages, that we are about the same age as the parents. (We don’t have kids.) Which got me thinking – what went wrong with MY generation that we have raised such helpless and entitled kids?? Even if we’d had kids, I feel quite certain that we would not have raised such kids! Our core values are the total opposite! Well, just rambling.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I place most of the blame on the parents. My husband is close to someone with young adult kids and for several years he has pointed out to them the pampering and coddling that goes on – and how helplessness and entitlement has resulted. The parents just don’t get it. We are mystified. They run themselves ragged doing everything for their kids and bailing them out of every situation. What the? We don’t relate at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2017 | Bob on Books

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