The second of my 7 Books for the Summer of ’17 is now complete. I just turned the final page in Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult, and can unequivocally state that it is a book every parent and pastor should read. Below are six choice quotes to demonstrate why.1
I believe our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming of age crisis without parallel in our history. 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.
The junior United States Senator from the state of Nebraska did not write a policy book, nor an impassioned rant about today’s youth. Instead, he shares a working theory as to how to give them a fighting chance.
Melissa [his wife] and I want them to arrive at adulthood as fully formed, vivacious, appealing, resilient, self-reliant, problem-solving souls who see themselves as called to love and serve their neighbors. The thought of them drifting in a state of passive, dependent, perpetual adolescence turns our stomachs.
His book covers five broad themes: liberating our children from the tyranny of the present, suffering in our work as a character-building virtue, resisting the consumption of too much stuff, experiencing other cultures, and reading critically.
[T]he American understanding of life progression has collapsed into just three categories—distinguishable mainly only by one’s abilities to manage elementary bodily functions: infancy, adult-childhood, and senility. None of them are defined or crisp enough; there is instead simply drift and stupor. Babies learn to control their bowels and get to become “adult-children”—a category they will inhabit until old age when they can again no longer control their bowels.
Sasse may be a politician (and a member of the Republican Party), but it is evident that he believes a solution begins much further upstream.
Democrat-versus Republican-menus… makes little sense to begin our discussion at the place where partisan-tribal actors will work to limit our conversation… we need a healthy debate that is not predetermined by us-versus-them tribalism. So let’s put a broad range of ideas on the table… Starting a discussion of the coming-of-age crisis around policy and political differences will only further drive away the large segment of Americans we need to reengage.
One of the author’s proposed prescriptions is to guide our youth into an early work experience that will help inoculate them against today’s passive peer culture.
Although our kids are obviously blessed to grow up in a free country where they don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, we have the opposite problem of an entitlement bred by this surplus… Short of going off the grid entirely and retreating to a cabin in the wilderness, there is no way to protect your kids completely from the rot of celebrity-driven popular culture, secularism, consumerism, hypersexuality—you name it. So much of modern American life seems to be about finding more efficient ways of shirking responsibilities… American teens hear plenty about their rights but correspondingly little about their duties… The older American ethic—of teaching kids why good work rather than the absence of work will make them happy—must be recovered in order to serve our kids better.
One of my favorite sections in the book deals with developing our reading muscles.
Becoming literate is truly a choice. Reading done well is not a passive activity like sitting in front of a screen. It requires a degree of attention, engagement, and active question of which most of our children currently have a deficit. The core question is not whether you hold in your hand an old-fashioned book or a new electronic book, but rather that even when you read from a screen, you develop the self-discipline to ignore the temptation to check email or scores or social media every few minutes. Reading done well requires a forward-leaning brain. Our culture’s ever-present distractions—the obsessive appeals to immediacy (“What ‘news’ might I be missing?”)—conspire to blunt our curiosity and distract us from sustained thought. The relentless pull of the digital world, with its demands that our kids submit to the shiny and the immediate, threatens to make them not just less literate but also more like subjects than citizens.
I had to force myself to stop typing on that last one. Perhaps the entire chapter should be posted somewhere. Bottom-line: buy, begin, and brood over the number of suggested solutions Sasse provides.
Thank you for committing both the time and energy to the project of rebuilding an American culture of self-reliance, Senator.
1 Sasse, Ben. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017). 2, 8, 54, 260-61, 139, 146, 210.