Having slogged through enough campaign-driven political books by presidential wannabes than I care to remember, I can say that Sen. Ben Sasse’s “The Vanishing American Adult” is head and shoulders above the ordinary political self-promotion vehicle. For one thing, it is not exactly about the Nebraska Republican or his family, although they figure prominently in his book. Rather, his book is a serious attempt to address serious issues — helicopter parents raising less-than self-sufficient children, the loss of a shared democratic heritage, the erosion of literacy in the Internet age, etc. Billing his book as 95 percent about something other than politics, he makes a good case for teaching resiliency to our kids, a key life-skill, and then offers some suggestions about how to do it. There is a bit too much of “Kids these days! Harrumph!” for my taste and too narrow a focus on children of highly educated parents, but again, in the books-by-ambitious-politicians genre, it’s one of the best we’ve seen in at least a decade.
Sasse is obviously a thoughtful, intellectually curious man who understands the connection between culture and a functioning democracy. “America is a creedal nation — that is, it depends on a shared creed or belief set about dignity and freedom,” he writes. “It depends not on the expert rule of a small, faraway elite class, but rather on the virtue and self-reliance of an entire republican (small r) populace.” In the age of Trump, when facts seem irrelevant and the president displays an abysmal lack of self-discipline and appreciation for learning, it’s a timely book.
Perhaps in a subsequent work, Sasse can address three issues that he was not able to explore completely in this volume.
First, in focusing on “kids these days,” he seems to let older generations off the hook. We see how Trump preyed on voters’ tribal loyalties, penchant for political cocooning, lack of grounding in democratic values and ignorance about basic economics and science. His most devoted voters — and Fox News’s most devoted viewers (average age of the latter is 68) — aren’t kids addicted to video games, but rather, they are fully formed adults who are ready to buy snake oil from a con man. They don’t seem to appreciate the democratic institutions and norms Trump wants to bulldoze. Rather than look at their own job and educational choices, they are all too ready to blame foreigners for their problems. It seems they — not their kids or grandkids — pose the greatest problem to our democracy for the foreseeable future. Sasse might take on these people — and their inclination toward self-pity and blame-mongering — in his next effort.
That topic appears to have the most urgency. How do we function as a democracy when millions of voters think that climate change is a Chinese hoax, that “so-called judges” shouldn’t block the president and that “America First” is the way to go — since, you know, America is a victim of greedy and lazy allies? We need to focus on the millions upon millions of voters who are content to function in a fact-free world in which politics becomes a way to channel resentment and bigotry. Sasse could have interesting observations on that problem, one created in part by unhinged right-wing media.
Moving on, Sasse criticizes “homogenized” education (he home-schools his three kids) that does not prepare students to be responsible adults or citizens. Encouraging home-schooling and experimentation with nontraditional schooling models sounds intriguing. It’s hard to argue with experimentation and development of diverse teaching methods that can customize learning for each student. Shaking up the curriculum can be dicey, however, if the local school boards themselves lack an appreciation for American institutions. However, the flip side of this is that Sasse — very rightly, in our view — bemoans the lack of shared values and understandings about our heritage. Well, that sounds like an argument for something like Common Core that sets out some agreed-upon markers for what kids should know at what grade level.
How do we reconcile the push for parental or local control with a need for a shared intellectual heritage? Sasse writes: “Well-functioning citizens share a collective memory of how and why toward what ends our polity came to be. Adult-citizenship presumes a substantial level of self-awareness and impulse control; in knows both rights and duties. Sadly, the United States today suffers from widespread collective amnesia.” Well-put, but then why object to Common Core (which initially was created by states) and efforts to demand high, uniform standards? The tension between these two ideals needs further examination.
Third, Sasse seems genuinely interested in trying to get Americans to build their own library that preserves our shared heritage. “For reading is not only about individuals deciding what we do and don’t believe; it’s also always about preservation and cultivation of a shared heritage.” Good so far. However, in presenting his own suggested volumes for kids to read before adulthood, he includes Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Plato’s “Crito,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Emile” and so on. Any of you with teens or preteens think your kids would make it through that sort of syllabus? Have any of you, the parents? I didn’t think so.
Feeding a starving man chocolate cake will not turn out well. You’ll lose the patient before he’s re-nourished. Similarly, setting the bar at this level does not help lure young people into the world of ideas; rather, it intimidates them and increases the chances that they’ll read not much of anything. In this regard, we’d be intrigued by some ways that we might meet children and adults where they are — with popular culture, for example. The ability of the musical “Hamilton” to strike up interest in history, constitutional government and the nature of democracy still astounds me. Whether it is “Hamilton” or the genre of Civil War historical fiction or a Ken Burns documentary, parents and educators need to think more systematically about using popular culture as a gateway to great ideas and big issues. After that, perhaps they can move on to more challenging material.
Sasse deserves credit for identifying some big and important cultural changes and returning the focus to citizens themselves. After all, “governing elites” wouldn’t be there doing damage to our democratic heritage if voters did not put them there. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves … ” (“Julius Caesar” is on Sasse’s suggested reading list, by the way.) And the problem, I’d suggest, is not with pampered children but with the fully formed adults who cannot tell a crackpot conspiracy theory from reality or a snake-oil salesman from a qualified presidential candidate.