Some immediate reactions to the title of Senator Ben Sasse’s book are to sigh and think, “Here comes another attack on today’s youngsters” and to call to mind “Kids”, the song from the 1963 musical Bye-Bye Birdie (“why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). But Senator Sasse (R-Neb), father of three and former president of Midland University, doesn’t give us an easy out in considering his main thesis: that much of what we consider to be indispensable American values are now threatened by our collective failure to properly guide our young to a level of maturity necessary for citizenship in our democracy.
Sasse asserts in the opening pages that his book is not a lament about the shiftlessness of today’s young; nor will it look back on a supposed “golden era” when kids were more compliant. The tone of the writing and the structure of the book are congruent with these disavowals. The flavor of his account is thoughtful, even kindly (although it pointedly underlines the collective failures of the last couple of adult generations to do their generational duties).
The first third of the book describes the reasons for the crisis, and the last two-thirds explore solutions. The heart of the problem, according to Sasse, is that the United States is vulnerable to contemporary challenges, threats, and dangers because we are not producing strong, resilient adults. Today’s young are not ready for what lies ahead because we have recently failed to adequately perform one of the essential functions of any society: to infuse the values, beliefs, and moral strengths of our ideals into the next generation. The reader is forewarned that this state of affairs is not amenable to quick fixes as the origins of the neglect go back at least to the 1950s.
Three reasons for the crisis
Sasse avers that our long, sustained material advance since the end of World War II, wherein each generation has experienced (on the whole) a steady rise in living standards, has removed, for most, the natural spur of want on the path to maturity. Rich nations, like rich families, must socialize their children without the inbuilt motivation of deprivation. Now that the nation has lost its post-WWII hegemonic status in the international political and economic spheres, there are adjustments incumbent upon the next generation of Americans. But Sasse worries about the young’s ability to cope with the already pressing new stresses at home and abroad. He senses a growing fear that the next generation is under-equipped to meet the challenges. However, Sasse does not play the blame-the-kids game here. If anyone in the book bears the heaviest responsibility for the crisis, it is the parents who, since the 1960s, have stood by while youth culture was born, flourished, and now has replaced adulthood as the ideal.
The crisis of the title has many precursors, and Sasse outlines, in Part 1 (“Our Passivity Problem”) three key socio-cultural feeders. The first is the confusion in the very definitions of the stages of life. We long ago left behind the infancy-childhood-adult understanding of life’s progression. Since at least the 1950s, we inserted the idea of “teenage” and then “adolescence” between “child” and “adult” and now are not sure when someone exits adolescence and reaches adulthood. Meanwhile, along with that confusion, the adults have nurtured and catered to the self-isolated cohort of teens/adolescents/young adults and now ape this cohort’s habits in appearance, mannerisms, and morality. “Young” encapsulates more and more the ideal, and “adult” sounds more and more like something to critique, disparage and avoid as long as possible.
The second feeder involves the shift away from the 19th-century view of children as “little citizens” that, by necessity, entered the world of work at a very young age, mostly into agricultural settings. The shift occurred as a result of the social iniquities of early industrialization. Liberal reformers sought, understandably, to rescue children from the evils of child labor in the crowded, unsanitary, and morally threatening cities. For most of the previous history of the nation parents had schooled their own children and taught them the skills necessary for survival in a pre-industrial world. Now children were to be protected and given a haven: public schooling. State after state created mandatory universal education laws. Several decades on, schools are stocked not only with teachers, but also with health professionals and counselors of all types; condoms and rape kits are handed out; “safe” rooms are maintained; and demonstrations, in-school protests and attacks on teachers are common. Parents are no longer the key socializers of their children, and, in many cases, seem all too willing to pass the buck to the schools, and then take the child’s side in disputes with the teachers.
The third feeder, then, is the nature and structure of today’s educational system. Educators, following the lead of philosopher and education reformer John Dewey (1859-1952), have long ago become the chief agents of next-generation socialization. Their role at first was to train the individual child in the new skills necessary for the more collectivist demands of industrial society. But their mission has “crept” far beyond its earlier scope, and now they have largely replaced the family (by default as much as by design), as the central force in children’s formative years. The public education hierarchs, heirs of Dewey’s legacy, operate from the liberal belief in public education as the key mechanism for achieving the progressive future.
Sasse, objecting, calls for less “schooling” (years spent solely in classrooms), and more education in the broader sense. He urges a reassessment of the isolation and one-size-fits-all character of our schools. He wants to see more parental control, more options for training, and more integration of the young into the wider world. A growing number of Americans seem to be agreeing at least in part with Sasse on this. Observers in all camps agree that the results of public K-12 programs are disappointing, even as costs continue to climb. In addition, school district and state budgets are squeezed by the rising costs of public, unionized K-12 education. As a result, parents everywhere have been voting with their feet, leaving failing or underperforming public schools and choosing home schooling, charter schools, or private education. There can be no better evidence of the sclerotic state of public education in the United States than the fury with which the establishment “educrats” and their political allies have greeted Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s attempts to promote more choice for parents in their children’s training.
The challenge of creating adults
In Part 2 of the book, Sasse stresses that it is too early to jump to policy choices to remedy the crisis. This is so, in his opinion, because we have not yet come to a common societal-wide resolve in light of the conditions outlined in Part 1 (not to mention the problem of the serious political gridlock of President Trump’s first several months in office, which bodes ill for early consensus building on even the most immediate problems). If not specific political policies, what does Sasse suggest?
Most of his recommendations aim at the individual parental level. He urges breaking the isolation of children from other age cohorts; reintroducing the idea of work as a necessary element in the socialization to adulthood; breaking the trend toward consumerism as a lifestyle for the young; providing exposure, through travel, to places and situations less rich, less privileged, and more “real” than middle America; steering kids away from the smart phones and the gaming devices and back toward the printed word (he even provides a suggested reading list his own kids choose from). Finally, he recommends revisiting the “idea” of America: why and how America is an exceptional polity, and what duties that requires of its citizens.
Worthy goals all; but whence the stimulus for such a comprehensive cultural reversal? In the past, wars, depressions and natural catastrophes were the sources of widespread socio-cultural reassessments. Are they the only hope for those who see the present situation as a paved road to a dour future? As stated earlier, Sasse does not claim that there is an easy, fast way out of this crisis. His whole book is really a call to see that there is a crisis. Although he mentions the lack of moral grounding in the lives of too many young people, (“spiritual-but-not-religious” does not seem to be adequate to the task), he only considers the negative social effects of the lack. One wishes he had spent more time on this. Perhaps because he is a politician he wants to avoid the deadly label of “believer who won’t leave his faith out of his public leadership role”. A strong moral foundation provided by strong parents would cure a lot of the ills he catalogs.
But perhaps for now Sasse is right; it’s not reasonable to expect today’s warring national policy makers to lead us out of the thicket. Perhaps they are too much part of the problem. Perhaps the stimulus must come from the bottom up, from people who begin to go around, over and through the confusion, responding to their own common sense rejection of a culture adrift. But one wonders, since in Sasse’s view there are so few remaining adults (in the full sense of the word), how many would be willing to swim against the current of a culture to which they have long ago surrendered?
Sasse rejects the “it was ever thus” response: that the young have always and will always rebel against the authority of their elders, and someday today’s rebels will be repaid for their cheekiness when they have their own children. He doesn’t deny that part of achieving adulthood involves a pushing against authority in all its forms (at least for a while). But he offers extensive evidence that something important distinguishes this rebellion from those of the past: whereas before, the rebellious young were pushing against something solid—adults who were willing and capable of defending core cultural tenets—too many of today’s adults are unwilling and incapable of defending the traditional culture. They have, in fact, surrendered to their children’s demands and have abdicated the duty of role modeling what constitutes adulthood and maturity, and instead look to the young for answers to questions historically in the purview of mature minds.
In the classic generational struggles of the past, it was young versus adult, bohemian versus bourgeois, unhip versus cool. Now the adult, bourgeois, and unhip have stopped pushing back, and have gone over in many cases to the other side of the barricades. Sasse’s book calls for parents to wake up, “get a spine”, and reestablish an ordered path to a healthy adulthood. The questions are: can they and will they?
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 New York 2017
Hardcover, 320 pages