THE VANISHING AMERICAN ADULT: OUR COMING-OF-AGE CRISIS–AND HOW TO REBUILD A CULTURE OF SELF-RELIANCE, by Ben Sasse

Published on February 1, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

St. Martin’s Press, 2017 | 320 pages

A Brief Book Summary From Books At A Glance

By Clay Werner

 

About the Author: Ben Sasse (Ph.D. Yale University) was the president of Midland University in Nebraska and is now a U.S. Republican Senator representing Nebraska.

 

Overview

This book seeks to outline the problems that have caused the “endless adolescence” of American teens and young adults and to prescribe ways to strengthen future generations in order for them to inherit this great nation. Education, government policies, and parenting strategies are addressed to explain why we are where we are currently in our culture and then a positive program of pursuing older generations for their wisdom, learning to love hard work and consume less, traveling to widen our horizons, building a bookshelf of classic books, and restoring the idea of America is given in order to raise up a new generation of adults who will be the rising leaders of this country.

 

Table of Contents

Introduction: My Kids “Need” Air Conditioning

Part I: OUR PASSIVITY PROBLEM
Chapter 1: Stranded in Neverland
Chapter 2: From Little Citizens to Baby Einsteins
Chapter 3: More School Isn’t Enough

Part II: AN ACTIVE PROGRAM
Chapter 4: Flee Age Segregation
Chapter 5: Embrace Work Pain
Chapter 6: Consume Less
Chapter 7: Travel To See
Chapter 8: Build a Bookshelf
Chapter 9: Make America an Idea Again
Postscript: Why This Isn’t a Policy Book
Afterword: If Teddy Roosevelt Spoke to a High School Graduating Class

 

Summary

Introduction

In view of various cultural and generational shifts, the concept of becoming an adult is less and less clear. In the past, understanding adulthood- what it is and what it entails- was a gift that older generations gave to the younger. This is no longer the case. However, this book is not an angry tirade against laziness nor a pining away for the golden age of the past. It is, though, the pursuit of understanding the root cause of the “collective coming-of-age crisis” in the current America which now lives in a state of ‘perpetual adolescence.’ We no longer know what an adult is or how to become one and it is more the fault of older generations than it is the fault of the younger ones.

Sasse began to see these cultural developments when he became president of a liberal arts college in Nebraska. Our culture’s unlimited access to technology along with the separation of younger generations from older generations has created a kind of “cultural amnesia about child-rearing” where almost no one seems to know how to lead younger generations into responsible, initiative-taking adulthood. The current “crisis of idleness and passive drift” will have profound implications for America if it is not dealt with wisely. The need is for “curious, critical, engaged young people who can demonstrate initiative and innovation,” yet most of our youth are not ready for the world they will soon inherit. The rest of the book will outline the problem and then the constructive solution which will seek to help adolescents transition from “dependence to self-sustaining adulthood.”

 

PART I: OUR PASSIVITY PROBLEM

Chapter 1: Stranded in Neverland

This chapter seeks to accurately define adolescence, to explain how we’ve arrived at a time where ‘endless adolescence’ seems to have developed through 5 major developments within the U.S., and to understand the role that education in general and John Dewey in particular has played in getting us to this cultural crisis point.

First, defining adolescence. The story of Peter Pan is not an ideal to achieve, but a tragedy to avoid. Peter Pan never grows up and yet everyone else in the story moves on. To avoid this ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’ it is helpful to understand the path to adulthood. Roman culture divided youth into three stages prior to adulthood: infantia (birth through six years); pueritia (seven to thirteen years); and pubertas (fourteen to twenty years old). The third stage, adolescence, was when they were increasingly prepared biologically, emotionally, and financially to leave home and become productive members of a society. Other cultures engaged their children in various ‘rites of passage’ that gave them a sense of what life will be like after leaving home and a clear delineation of when that time had come. In America, these clear markers have become less purposeful (like taking prom pictures or receiving a diploma) and various external factors have helped to lengthen adolescence (more affluence, better health, less war, etc.). Culturally, adolescence existed but was variable- either longer or shorter; but perpetual adolescence is “bizarrely oxymoronic.”

Second, coming to the point of lengthy adolescence has been brought about by five major developments within the U.S. A first major factor is the increasing wealth and the ability to indulge in more creature comforts than ever before. A second major factor is that children, in large part, are taken away from the work world through school and know more about consumption than production. Next, home life and the nuclear family are more and more disrupted. Fourth, education has grown so much as to not allow time for younger people to engage in meaningful work experiences nor has it gifted them with the broader understanding of life which entails becoming a productive citizen of a larger society of which one is a part. Last, the protest era of the ‘60’s has led to a deeper cultural polarization which has diminished our discourse. The above 5 developments are why the deepest generational rift in America is those who came before or after the Baby Boomers.

Third, a final ‘megatrend’ requires special mention- education. With the influx of immigrants into America, a pragmatic strand of universal education won the day which sidelined important but controversial ideological fights. John Dewey is a crucial player to understand how American education developed. Dewey dismissed both the Augustinian understanding of original sin and the Rousseauian idea of cultivating the good within each child. By universalizing and standardizing education nationally, the school became an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and it “ceased to be an instrument supporting parents and became a substitute for parents.” Instead of aiding parents in the raising of their children, its increasing role has displaced parents, seeking to shape the minds of the students by the abstract “social consciousness of the race,” or what Sasse calls the zeitgeist of the present day. It is a model of education that has distracted kids from asking big life questions, from understanding their role in society as productive citizens, and completely ignores issues of character.

 

Chapter 2: From Little Citizens to Baby Einsteins

We currently define adulthood through the legal milestone of turning 18 in America. In the past, adulthood was earned through experiencing various milestones that marked a mature person (moving away, getting a job, marriage, family, etc.). These milestones were clearly marked expectations which were handed down by older generations. So why, now, do most of us see an age (18) rather than a maturity level being the marker of adulthood? The rise of secondary schooling in early America and the creation of child-labor laws after the explosion of the Industrial Age which insulated children from work have helped to get us here. While most of these laws were helpful in protecting children, they also helped to create a culture that diminished understanding children as little workers who would grow up to be positive contributors to their communities. A child-centered, nurturing approach is now the majority view rather than a perspective that seeks to train children to contribute to something bigger than themselves. How did we get here?

Sasse offers “nine indicative changes” that have led to this less intentional approach of preparing children for adulthood: more medication is prescribed to cope with mounting pressures to perform in school, more screen time, more pornography, more young-adults living with their parents, less or delayed marriages as a result of all the broken homes many have experienced, less religious participation, less instruction about the founding principles. . .

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Buy the books

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

St. Martin’s Press, 2017 | 320 pages