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
“I believe 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.
• 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).