I do not typically like books written by current politicians. They are dull, self-serving, and full of platitudes and clichés. Senator 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, $38.99, 306 pages) is none of those things. The Nebraska Republican lawmaker and former university president has identified a problem – today’s mollycoddled youth who are unprepared for the vigours of adult responsibilities — and its various causes, and how to address them. Refreshingly, he is not calling for a political program to help today’s youth become productive and resilient, and indeed much of Sasse’s book reads more like a parenting manual than political screed.
Sasse tells the amusing story of when he was president of Midland University he came across a large half-decorated 20-foot Christmas tree on campus. None of the students tasked with decorating could be bothered to look for a ladder to complete the job. He said “this day’s failures wasn’t at all about lacking brains” but rather the absence of will and ownership and “experience or interest in seeing tasks through completion.”
Sasse marshals an impressive panoply of statistics to make his case that kids today are soft. That’s not a judgment as much as an observation, nor does he blame them for being over-medicated, addicted to their screened technology, afraid to venture into the wider world or try physical labour, losing their faith, and being “intellectually fragile.” He places blame squarely on schools and parents.
There is a short discourse on the educational philosophy of John Dewey and the downside of universal education. There is criticism of parents who are overly protective of their kids. It’s not that he’s against mass education and parents protecting their children; it’s that too many families haven’t found new ways to build character and search for meaning to balance these softening tendencies.
Sasse offers advice to parents to provide new experiences for their children like encouraging them to travel abroad with a light backpack or spending a month on a farm doing laborious tasks. He has excellent advice on how to encourage children to read, both guiding their reading and encouraging them to find the sort of books they want to read. He wants young people to spend more time with their elders to learn what previous generations experienced (and didn’t).
He laments that so many people embrace the culture of consumption without participating in the culture of production. He concludes that the goal is to produce lifelong producers and lifelong learners, and while “parts of that riddle will surely touch policy,” more importantly “the challenge is about nurturing more resilient souls.” Sasse’s Vanishing American Adult can help parents and grandparents who are the first educators responsible for doing so.
Paul Tuns is the editor of The Interim and author of The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau.