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Ben Sasse on The Vanishing American Adult, a reflection, a review

This is not a book about politics (though the title may ring a little ironically these days). The Republican Senator from Nebraska has penned a book that has more to do with parenting and education. In the afterword, he explicitly explains why he decided against writing a policy book. The reason is stunning, sad. He felt it wouldn’t push any discussion further; it wouldn’t be productive. With such a tiny amount of Americans even engaged in policy discussions, a policy book would only be of interest to that tiny readership. He points out that the real divide in America isn’t necessarily between the Right and the Left. Rather, it’s between the Engaged and the Disengaged.

This is, intriguingly, connected to our long adolescence, our Forever-Young refusal to grow up, our intellectual immaturity. We are perpetual children, happily disengaged.

You have to read the book. Or listen to it. I listened to the audiobook, which Sasse narrates himself. While steeped in conservativism, I think it can be viewed through nonpartisan lenses. I had just recently perused White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, and she pretty much turns American history on its head by showing the underbelly, so to speak, of our nation: we aren’t terribly aware of certain un-pretty parts of our history (preferring an American mythology that conveniently “forgets” a lot of injustice), the Founding Fathers are right up there with Moses—and they’re ahead of King Solomon. Sasse certainly seems to hold to the traditional orthodoxy, but he acknowledges the importance of an American intellectual legacy.

America was uniquely founded on an idea rather than an ethnicity—and we’ve lost touch with the idea! What happens when we stop juggling/pilfering/considering/coddling/prizing ideas, intellectual discourse, the life of the mind? Our growth is stunted. We have nothing to talk about. We can only resort to unfounded opinion, shallow platitudes. Since our contemporary involvement with ideas is so scanty, it’s not surprising that we resort to relativism, and the best we can offer is a declaration such as, “Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion.” If we no longer wrestle with ideas, our personal and national identities are threatened.

Do we wrestle with ideas? Is this an unfair assessment? Are we a thoughtful people?

Sasse’s book is mostly nonpartisan. It’s about how we teach our kids, how individually engaged we are. This is how he puts it: “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 anymore - or how to become one. Many don’t even see a reason 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 is theirs.”

As a mom and as an educator, I felt pretty convicted. Some of his directives (he offers many) were great. Should he ever run for president, Sasse might get my vote just for his love of travel! He advocates serious travel (with a backpack)—which is not the same thing as passive tourism (a checklist of attractions)—for kids. Active, thoughtful, engaged travel. I love this, and wish I could do more with my children.

But the other thing that gets my vote is his reading advocacy. We should be reading a lot. He talks about parents reading, children reading. He mentions that, on average, George W Bush read two books a week in office! Amazing! He writes about how he and his wife keep a book shelf of essential texts for their children to read. The books are diverse, ranging from Mark Twain to “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” from Augustine’s Confessions to Ancient Greek Thought.

He also addresses the oft-repeated discourse on the Western Canon. He notes that there has been criticism over the fact that our Canon of great literature is white and male. This is valid criticism, indeed. We are, however, able to read beyond the white guys. It is a mistake to abandon our Canon, even though it is incomplete. They emphasis on the Canon isn’t about exclusivity. Rather, it’s about commonality. Without a shared intellectual and cultural history, we are left—tragically—unable to have much of a discussion.

Up until this point, I have not addressed Sasse’s religious belief. He is a Christian (raised Lutheran, ended up Reformed). He is, by no means, proselytizing. I did find, however, his book to be well worth Christian scrutiny.

What does it mean to be engaged in our nation as a Christian?

What role should travel play in our lives? Maybe more importantly, how should Christians engage with others in the world—as we encounter diversity?

Is being a reader a responsibility, a luxury, a hobby, or what?

Socrates gave us his whole spiel on the unexamined life is not worth living. I think Sasse is appropriately participating in this historical conversation.

Further Reading:

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