The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis , and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
© 2017 Ben Sasse
Why are teenagers and young adults floundering into maturity? Ben Sasse believes that much of the problem is the mass schooling system in the United States, which — he argues — promotes passivity and disengagement. Schooling is not education, he writes, and by depending on it parents have abrogated their responsibilities. He calls on parents to take seriously teenagers’ need to be guided & trained, not schooled, and proposes a course for doing so. If we continue to allow young people to languish, he writes, the consequences could be the loss of the American republic itself — for it depends on citizens who take themselves, and their conjoined rights and responsibilities as citizens seriously.
Mass schooling as an institution has been under-performing for most, if not all, of its lifetime, to the point that it has been deforming college by turning the early years of the same into catchup classes for those who high school failed. But increasingly young adults are graduating high school and entering their adult years not just unprepared for college, but unprepared for life — to the point that ostensibly sensible people call for high school classes on balancing checkbooks, cooking, etc — as if raising human beings to their full potential was an achievement possible by a bureaucracy. When could schools fit in all these lessons, when the college prep so overwhelms classes that physical education & the arts are fast on the retreat? One of mass schooling’s more formidable opponents, John Taylor Gatto, was himself a decorated teacher — until he began writing books that argued schools fomented intellectual dependency and passivity. Sasse proposes that parents develop an active program with their teenagers to help them realize their adulthood: one that involves being engaged in physical work, helping the aged and the very young, embracing limited consumption, and engaging with the world through both travel and thoughtful literature. Most of the book consists of his expanding on this course.
Sasse’s proposed course, which is not woolgathering but the way he and his wife guide their own teenagers, marks him as one of the more interesting members of Congress. It would be easy enough for a dullard to dismiss Sasse’s urging parents to help teens develop a work ethic as age-old adult complaining about the laziness of the young, but Sasse proves himself someone who has given much thought to human flourishing, especially in his chapters on overturning age segregation and consumerism. Spending time with the aged doesn’t just expose children to perspectives beyond their myopic generation; it will help them to start wrestling with the idea of mortality, to the inevitable visitors of suffering ,decay, and death, and to the universal human need to compose ourselves for them. We will not find relief from these troubles by sinking into transitory pleasures and comforts — but by investing in ourselves, in our character, by learning to practice self-awareness and control, we can live well despite our pain, and die with weary feet but rested souls. All of the ideas have merit on their own, but Sasse draws connection — as when he connects the value in work to curbing consumerism: consumption doesn’t make us happy, but meaningful labor can. That’s not labor merely as in day jobs, either, but the work we do for our homes and friends — cooking meals to share with others, helping a neighbor with a fallen tree after a s storm.
Sasse wrote this book for the same reason he later wrote Them: Why We Hate, and How to Heal: he is concerned that the American nation is actively disintegrating, being divided into what he later called anti-tribes, and the failure to raise teenagers into adults who function only aggravates this. Minds whose only interaction with literature has been to memorize trivia about it, rather than engage with it and grow, will fare poorly at trying to understand others — and people who have been told what to do and where to go and how to do this their entire lives, with no allowance for self-exploration, will not do well in becoming the actors of their own lives. They will drift into passivity and frustration, knowing they’re missing something but not knowing what, and seeking their meaning in political ideology and social media antics instead. Although this book was intended for parents, it’s worth reading for anyone concerned about the future of the American polis. I think there’s more to the question of widespread infantailization than the school system, but considering that pre-corona children often spent more time immersed in it than they did at home, it’s as solid a place to start as any.