Let’s get this out of the way right off: The Vanishing American Adult is not a political book. So says author Ben Sasse.
Sure, the author happens to be a first term Republican Senator who gained notoriety last cycle by maintaining an unflinching #NeverTrump posture. Indeed, it may be true that St. Martin’s Press may have handed Senator Sasse a book deal thinking that November’s election of Hillary Clinton would have whetted the appetite for Republican book buyers trying to chart a way forward. In that way, this book is a sibling to both Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and John Kasich’s Two Paths.
But while publishers may have sought the same market share the three books are very different. Kasich’s book largely regurgitates his campaign stump speech replete with warning that America will either be “Divided or United” premised mostly on whether or not it comes together and elects him instead of Trump. Dreher’s book, as has been amply discussed in this space, offers a journalist’s/prophet’s timely prescription for American Christians wondering How We Should Then Live as our culture’s post-Christian flood threatens to carry away our children.
One might think that Sasse would pen a book much like his fellow #NeverTrump elected-Republican Kasich, but instead he has written a volume much more like the non-politician Dreher’s. If Dreher’s Benedict Option is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” then Sasse’s Vanishing American Adult might be “A Strategy for Parents in a Post-Adult Nation.” Or actually, more accurately, “The Teddy Roosevelt Option: A Strategy for America to Avoid Becoming a Post-Adult Nation.”
But remember, this isn’t about politics.
One easy way to tell that this isn’t the usual politician’s book is that Ben Sasse’s smiling mug is absent from the design of the front cover. Kasich’s Two Paths does not make that particular design oversight. The image that is featured on Sasse’s cover is that of an American flag gradually disappearing à la Marty McFly on a Polaroid. The photoshopping may leave something to be desired, but the imagery’s meaning is clear: America as we know it could cease to exist unless we address the problem Sasse has identified.
What is that problem? In short it can be summed up in the title of the book’s introduction: “My Kids Need Air-Conditioning.” Our society’s wealth, technology, and educational structures are combining to give rise to a generation that can’t finish tasks, listlessly wastes time, and, is “bubble-wrapped enough” that they think it impossible to sleep without A/C cooling their room below seventy-two degrees. Sasse explains that these stories about lack of initiative and growing sense of entitlement amongst the young “are not in any way about politics” (see, I told you), but that “America can’t endure long this way.”
Sasse’s diagnosis of what is wrong is multi-faceted and includes both chosen and unchosen developments in American culture. On the side of philosophical choices, Sasse targets John Dewey’s largely successful campaign to transform schools into surrogate parents.
[Dewey] doesn’t want the school any longer to be in the handmaiden role, aiding parents in their goal of passing literacy and tradition and deferred gratification on to the their progeny. . . [H]is schools now have the socially transforming purpose of displacing the parents, with their supposedly petty interests in their children as individuals.
As reconstituted by Dewey and his disciples, schools have become more like a social laboratory than a location where individuals are equipped with the skills needed for self-reliant living. Because schools have replaced parents as our culture’s primary organ of child development, we have a culture of diploma-holding twenty-somethings who haven’t actually become adults in any meaningful way.
Sasse names eight markers of becoming an adult: moving out, finishing school (for good), holding a full-time job, becoming economically independent, losing one’s virginity, marrying, having children, and forming an independent household. On nearly every measure, the emerging adults that America has produced in the twenty-first century are doing less of these things and doing them later.
How Luxury Endangers the Republic
But Dewey’s philosophy of education isn’t the only threat endangering the maturation of the next generation, America’s material prosperity (and the mentality it fosters) presents a real challenge as well.
Sasse notes that the very concept of “adolescence” as a distinct phase didn’t really become commonly accepted in American until “formalized public education spread and more Americans began to adopt the wealthy European model of protecting children from work instead of socializing them into work.” Even in the past decade, a noticeable shift has occurred such that fewer and fewer children of middle-class families have high school jobs like flipping burgers or detasseling corn stalks. But when wealthy parents insulate their children from the effort of work while treating them to the benefits of wealth, a distortion field is created.
Hard work produces wealth, which then produces leisure. Over an individual lifetime, this seems both fair and good. But across generations, it leads to people who know only leisure and not the work or character that created it.
With these sentences, this book not only identifies a core source of unease afflicting America’s emerging adults, but also captures the reason that political philosophers have long warned that luxury is the bane of republics. A government of the people and by the people is dramatically dependent upon the character of that people. Our constitutional forms have been said to be unfit to govern anything but a moral and religious population.
(Excuse me, somehow I got sidetracked with politics there, back to the book!)
Because of our affluence, Americans need to take conscious measures to avoid raising a horde of entitled brats who have no understanding of hard work or the character necessary to govern their own affairs. From helicopter parenting to university safe spaces, we already see evidence that America is becoming soft. Sasse is trying to “start a conversation” about how we can turn this around.
Five prescriptive chapters form the core of the book. Sasse calls for child-rearing that (1) eschews age-segregation and ensures encounters with birth and death, (2) instills a ethic that prefers freedom in work over freedom from work, (3) warns of the dangers of luxury and consumption, (4) enables travel (not tourism) to reinforce the first three lessons, and (5) leads to reading a canon of great books. While his suggestions are general and philosophical, Sasse drills down enough to suggest everyone should witness a birth, report about his daughter castrating bulls (and possibly breaking federal labor law in the process), and quote Alanis Morrisette lyrics.
When giving his own personal proposal for what the American canon should be he clarifies that he is not arguing for a governmental decree setting a shared reading list for country. “I don’t write primarily as a senator, but rather as a citizen, as a dad, as a reader,” Sasse explains (how many times do I have to remind you that this isn’t a political book).
Channeling Teddy Roosevelt
By now, you’re probably wondering about the title of this review. It stems from the book’s afterword “If Teddy Roosevelt Spoke to a High School Graduating Class.” It is a stemwinder of a hypothetical address that runs nine pages and that I cannot resist excerpting at some length. Here’s Sasse/Roosevelt imploring his listeners to live the Strenuous Life.
I have thought a bit more about the particular strengths we need in our boys, and I cannot hide the fact that I am worried that you boys are soft. America has a right to expect that our boys will turn out to be good men. In my experience, the chances are strong that one won’t be much of a man unless he was first a good deal of a boy. He must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig. He must work hard and he must play hard. He should be able to hold his own under all circumstances and against all comers. It is only on these conditions that he will grow into the kind of American man that America needs . . .
And here’s Sasse/Roosevelt expressing concern that virtue to be cultivated.
You should want to be good . . . Cultivate the virtues! I mean “good” in the largest sense. It includes whatever is straightforward and clean, brave and manly. Have courage. Be honest. Exercise your God-given common sense.
Earlier in the book Sasse pointed out a piece of linguistic trivia: “though ‘virtue’ has come over the centuries to mean ‘moral living,’ it evolved from an older Latin term meaning ‘strength.’ The two are inextricably linked.” Sasse wants self-respecting, self-governing adults to know the good and have the ability to do it. And for them to work.
Aspire to be known as a worker–as one who would be ashamed not to pull his own weight . . .
Drink this in: if a man does not work, then nothing can be done with him. He is out of place in any community–but especially our American community. For we are workers. We have in our scheme of government no room for the man who does not wish to pay his way through life by what he does for himself and for the community.
If this were a political book, the conceit of a first-term Senator giving voice to the sentiments of a beloved Mount Rushmore-level President might be indicative of some kind of future aspirations on Sasse’s part. As it is, however, the invocation of the famous Rough Rider merely serves to incarnate what Sasse believes our current moment requires: It requires us to replace our citizens’ softness with strength.