Sen. Ben Sasse's 'The Vanishing American Adult' is oddly timed but quite good
I'm of two minds about U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse's new book, "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis — And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance" (St. Martin's Press).
One part of me sees the rise of young adult YouTube stars whose sole talent appears to be enticing kids (including my own) to watch them play video games and thinks: Seriously. A lecture on vanishing adults, please.
The other part of me watches the 70-year-old president of the United States tweeting maniacally, whining at graduation speeches and dodging multiple investigations while his party's congressional leaders speculate in secret about who's in Russia's pocket and thinks: Seriously? A lecture on vanishing adults? From a Republican senator? Please.
The thing is, Sasse's book is good. Good enough, in fact, to quiet the part of my mind that doesn't want a lecture from a senator right now. He acknowledges from the beginning that his book could easily be misread as an exercise in cantankerous nostalgia, and he's careful not to let it become one.
"You might think you're about to hear a harrumph against the laziness of the rising generation or about stultifying helicopter parenting," he writes. "Actually, you will hear very little 'Get off my lawn!' screaming in these pages. There are few easy answers offered here — and this project isn't primarily about blaming anyone."
What Sasse mostly offers is encouragement and ideas for expanding our kids' minds and worlds beyond what they know and draw comfort from. His advice is rooted in his experience as both a father of three and a former president of Midland University, where he was taken aback by a culture of passivity.
He was particularly unnerved, he writes, when some students from the athletic department were tasked with setting up and decorating a 20-foot Christmas tree in the lobby of the basketball arena. The students only decorated the bottom seven or eight feet — the branches they could easily reach. No one bothered to look for a ladder.
"I simply couldn't reconcile the decision to leave while the work was still incomplete with how my parents had taught me to think about assignments," Sasse writes. "I couldn't conceptualize growing up without the compulsion — first external compulsion, but over time, the more important internal and self-directed kind of compulsion — to attempt and to finish hard things, even when I didn't want to."
I wish he'd countered some of his criticisms of millennials with more acknowledgment of their strengths. Millennials volunteer their time in higher percentages than previous generations, are on track to become the most educated generation in American history and are the most open-minded demographic when it comes to LGBTQ rights and interracial marriage, according to Pew Research Center statistics.
Still, Sasse taps into a sense of unease that a lot of us feel about our kids (and ourselves) as we watch devices suck up increasing amounts of time and energy and our world spiral into a sort of distracted directionlessness.
He doesn't pretend to offer a silver bullet, but he offers clear steps for nudging our kids out of their comfort zones and toward curiosity and that elusive compulsion.
He extols the virtue of challenging, laborious work — at home and outside the home.
"If you have done any real work, you begin to see a broad range of work differently," he writes. "And if you've been reflective about your and other people's work, you start to ask questions about where goods and services come from. ... As hard work is baked into your bones, you begin to feel great gratitude for the other workers who built the stuff and plotted the distribution system that got these toasters and sneakers and books to this place. On the other hand, if you've never worked, you are more likely blind to the fundamental distinction between production and consumption."
He encourages lots of travel, and not just the comfortable kind.
"Tourism not travel is the default mode of travel in our culture of cheap amusements," he writes. "My guess is that for most of us, our kids show up on day one of any trip we take as a family having done little more than show up."
Let them travel alone, he urges. Look for trips that introduce kids to different cultures and experiences. Make them pack light.
"Travel compels the reconsideration of the world free of many social conventions," he writes.
And in my favorite chapter of all, Sasse urges us to give our kids lots and lots of books.
"The truly free have always required literacy," he writes. "There is a reason why teaching slaves to read has historically been illegal across slave-holding cultures. And there are thus reasons why America's descent toward functional illiteracy as the digital age flowers should frighten us."
He pushes Shakespeare, Greek philosophers, religious texts, George Orwell, Willa Cather, you name it.
"Indeed," he writes, "in an age where we now have the ability to choose our own news, and firmly confine ourselves to echo chambers filled only with those who already think like we do, cultivating anew a national knowledge base of the shared is all the more urgent."
Fantastic advice in a book chock-full of it. I hope he encourages his colleagues in Congress to give it a read.
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