THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
In an era of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and an unprecedented election, the country's youth are in crisis. Senator Ben Sasse warns the nation about the existential threat to America's future.
Raised by well-meaning but overprotective parents and coddled by well-meaning but misbegotten government programs, America's youth are ill-equipped to survive in our highly-competitive global economy.
Many of the coming-of-age rituals that have defined the American experience since the Founding: learning the value of working with your hands, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliantare being delayed or skipped altogether. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents.
From these disparate phenomena: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse who as president of a Midwestern college observed the trials of this generation up close, sees an existential threat to the American way of life.
In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can't grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your bodyand explains how parents can encourage them.
Our democracy depends on responsible, contributing adults to function properlywithout them America falls prey to populist demagogues. A call to arms, The Vanishing American Adult will ignite a much-needed debate about the link between the way we're raising our children and the future of our country.
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STRANDED IN NEVERLAND
Defining Adolescence * We're All Baby Boomers Now * Their Forgotten Souls * A Broader Character-Building Program Wendy: You are both ungallant and deficient!
Peter: How am I deficient?
Wendy: You're just a boy.
— J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Peter Pan is a story about a boy who refuses to grow up. We often misremember it as a cheery fairy tale. It isn't. In the end, the Peter of J. M. Barrie's classic is not at all a commendable hero. He's selfish and shortsighted. "I don't want to go to school and learn solemn things," Peter tells us. "I don't want to be a man."
He ultimately cannot remember his past, and thus learns nothing from it. Near the end of the book, Wendy tries to reminisce with Peter:
"Who is Captain Hook?" he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.
"Don't you remember," she asked, amazed, "how you killed him and saved all our lives?"
"I forget them after I kill them," he replied carelessly.
Though Peter never grows up, each of his Lost Boys does. So does Wendy. She has a daughter, Jane, who visits but eventually flees from Neverland. And Jane has a daughter named Margaret, who similarly refuses to be trapped in Neverland. And on it goes. Everyone moves on. Except for Pan. Peter never changes; he never grows up.
Living only in the present isn't freedom. Living only in the present isn't even human if you think about it. Humans, unlike any other animal on the planet, remember the past. We understand our nature. And we try to build on both of them. We are an aspirational species; we look to the future.
With every crisis comes opportunity, and this time is no different. The challenges before our nation present huge opportunities, not only for fundamentally rethinking how and where we live and work but also how we think about learning, about friendship and social networks, about what it means to be an American. Our goal is for our kids to be intentional about everything they do — to reject passivity and mindless consumption and to embrace an ethos of action, of productivity, of meaningful work, of genuinely lifelong learning. In other words, we want them to find the good life.
Now let us begin.
No civilization has ever embraced endless adolescence before. Some spoiled dynastic families have made efforts to cultivate it, but the life of being pampered has rarely ended well for the children of the ultra-rich either. In fact, very few cultures have ever had much adolescence at all, and when they did, they clearly delineated it with communal rituals that forced individuals up and out of adolescence.
Traditionally, the path to adulthood has been clear. There is still an order to growing up, but it must ultimately be an order of events and achievements rather than merely an order of dates. Ancient Roman law explicitly divided the three stages of youth before adulthood into seven-year segments:
infantia (birth through age 6), pueritia (7 to 13), and pubertas (14 to 20). This basic framing of these three phases endured until very recently. The first of the three stages was the period when children were most immediately dependent on their parents, and particularly their mothers, for food, care, and safety. Its endpoint was when kids gingerly seized their first taste of temporary independence and began to leave the home for part of the day. When the apron strings were cut, children learned that it was possible to be away from mom for six or eight or ten hours and still survive.
The second stage coincided more or less with the time of apron-strings-cutting until puberty began and bodies signaled the arriving change to physical adulthood. Children exercised more choices in food and fashion and began to demonstrate greater self-control. For children growing up in free countries since the rise of cheap print five hundred years ago, this has been the period when they learned to read, learned to apply logical reasoning, and learned to conceptualize more sophisticated ideas — such as cause and effect, and enduring short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. The maturing children came to consciously believe in things beyond the tangible here and now.
The third stage, adolescence, was the final launching point from childhood into adulthood. The word "adolescence," derived from the Latin verb meaning "to grow up," likely began to be widely used in the fifteenth century, and was meant to suggest the nearing of full maturity — not only biologically, but now also emotionally, financially, and in terms of character. Child psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1950s framed adolescence as a "moratorium on adulthood," a time for individuals to pause in order to experiment and develop their identities, increasingly independent of their parents. Duty could be understood as it was embraced; it wasn't merely a burden to bear mindlessly. Adolescence was intended as a greenhouse phase, in which the oldest children could be protected as they worked through the last struggles of maturation. Tolerating or encouraging adolescence reflected the awareness of parents and other community authorities of the importance of a period for children to prepare to leave the nest finally and permanently.
In some cultures, adolescence still involves clear rituals signaling the delineation between child and adult. Their purpose is to vividly impress upon the adolescent the new set of obligations associated with the new phase of life: adult independence rather than childhood dependency. Jews have the bar and bat mitzvah, Hispanics the quinceañera. An extreme example comes from ancient Sparta (dramatically portrayed in Zack Snyder's 2006 fantasy-action film 300), where boys were forced into military academies at the age of 7 and then into the wilderness, armed only with a red cloak, at the age of 12. Spartans expected their budding soldiers to be able to scrounge their own food, which often involved quasi-sanctioned stealing, to demonstrate their survival skills. The Sateré-Mawé, an indigenous tribe in Brazil, celebrates their boys' coming of age at 13 by having them wear gloves containing "bullet ants," which deliver one of the world's most painful stings. They endure the suffering to demonstrate their readiness for adulthood.
Upon turning thirteen, my uncle was allowed to begin camping out at the lakes five miles outside of our town. He and his friends had long been allowed to ride their bikes there in daylight hours, but always with the proviso that they return before the streetlights came on. Now, with that requirement lifted, he came to know the delights of the bright sky, but also the terrors of coyotes howling in the dark in the middle of the night. There were no adults to protect him so far from home — except for, in a way, himself.
A "rite of passage" is a way of marking the transition from one group to another. It is often an occasion for celebration. It entails becoming a full member of a community, whether a tribe, a military unit, a religious group, or a nation. Rites of passage may be sacred or secular, but they serve similar initiation purposes. While they frequently involve hardship, they're not meant to make kids miserable; they're intended to prime them for the inevitable tribulations that come with adulthood and to instill in them the work ethic and perseverance necessary to survive upon leaving home. They reflect — or perhaps, sadly, they once reflected — ordinary parents' extraordinary awareness that children need a realistic sense of what life will be like after leaving the nest before they actually launch. They need an intentional introduction. Today, that sense is dwindling, with potentially grave consequences for society at large.
It's not that Americans don't have coming-of-age rituals, but rather that those rituals have become more automatic, and less purposeful, than achievement-based rituals. Our principle hurdles involve uncomplicated things, like taking pictures before prom or learning to pause the appropriate length of time before walking out to receive a high school diploma — which is granted to virtually everyone who doesn't quit school.
We don't know many folks who have spent a week in the wilderness with a group of elders for an initiation by fire. Some of our communities still push their members toward difficult challenges for a greater purpose: the United States Marine Corps and the Navy SEALs both put young recruits through virtual hell before they become full-fledged members of the service, for example. At the other end of the spectrum, in the Amish tradition of "rumspringa," young people are permitted to leave home and live among outsiders, wear non-Amish clothing, drive cars, even drink and use illicit substances, before being asked to make a conscious choice about whether they want to be baptized back into the community. A membership that began by the accident of birth can now become theirs by deliberate choice — if they opt to become intentionally participating adults.
Of course, external factors can affect the length of adolescence. Children who are born into poverty or experience the premature death of parents often have to step up early, without a supervised transition into adulthood. War-ravaged cultures have neither the time nor the protective space to allow the physically mature to delay full adult responsibilities. If you were a 13-year-old in Bosnia or Rwanda in 1994, it was quite possible that one or both of your parents were killed, and you either became an adult immediately or you perished as well.
Adolescence is different from the earlier two stages of childhood in that its endpoint is more debatable and its length is more uncertain. Adolescence can be nonexistent, or short, or medium-length, or long. Having no adolescence is tragic; a short one can work if it's intentionally focused; a long one is not necessarily a problem if still oriented toward a definable end goal — think a multiyear apprenticeship to master a craft or a series of cross-cultural immersions to become proficient in a language.
Endless adolescence, however, is bizarrely oxymoronic.
Adolescence has always been a means to an end — its point was to aid the transition to adulthood. It was not an end in itself. The Spartans forced their soldiers to go through torturous rituals not because pain was good, but because they wanted to make sure that the adult citizens responsible for defending their society had the knowledge and wherewithal, the toughness and self-awareness, to fulfill their duties and responsibilities. Adolescence was intentional and meant to be finite.
Our situation is different. We no longer have any sophisticated, widely understood purpose for adolescence. We no longer share a definable reason for postponing adult responsibilities beyond biological adulthood. Our kids sense this larger cultural drift and respond with a broad range of time-killers. But if the most precious gift we have is time — earlier generations of Americans after all spoke compulsively about "redeeming the time" — why would we want to kill it?
WE'RE ALL BABY BOOMERS NOW
How did we get to this point — where a large portion of our people in the prime of their lives are stuck in a sad sort of limbo, ordering pizza on cell phones while streaming Netflix from their parents' basements, where they live? There is no simple answer, but we can wrap our minds around the current unraveling of adolescence by briefly considering five big developments in the United States in the first decades after World War II.
First, although the echoes of the 2008 recession remain and longer-term employment instability will likely accelerate, we still have more material surplus than any other people any place in all of history. That's obviously good news — but it also has a large and underdiscussed downside: our jaw-dropping wealth accumulation over the past seventy years has allowed America's youth to indulge in more creature comforts than any generation ever before.
Second, and related to our overconsumption, our kids no longer know how to produce. They don't grow up around work. Today's children are likely to conceive of work as one job, and yet less likely to work the same job as their parents — such as on a family farm or ranch or in the same trade — than ever before. They no longer see up close a broad range of their parents' work struggles, and they do not daily observe their parents' work ethic the way their great-grandparents did. Most kids' hours are spent chiefly in age-segregated environments. This vacuum of adult authority and of the compulsory nature of work has been filled first by the peer culture of the school and more recently by the narcissistic autonomy of the digital world. Ironically, even though many late teens and twentysomethings continue sleeping physically under their parents' roofs for longer than they did in past generations, they have been liberated from the social and moral universes of their elders much earlier.
Third, the warning bells we've been hearing for half a century about the nuclear family being in peril turned out to be right. A stunning portion of our kids now experience the disruption of home life, one that rattles the stable, trusted environment from which they should be finding an orderly launch into independent adulthood. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the legendary New York Democrat (whose desk I occupy on the U.S. Senate floor), first sounded the alarm about the crisis of black family disintegration. The U.S. Department of Labor published Moynihan's report on why federal officials should panic about household collapse in 1965. At the time, the crisis was an out-of-wedlock birthrate among African Americans rocketing toward one in four, compared with a rate in the low single digits for whites. Five decades later, it's clear that the problem isn't about race — it is nearly universal. The works of Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and J. D. Vance show that these tragic developments are not unique to any geographic or ethnic community. The share of white births occurring outside marriage is now roughly three in ten, which is higher than the "emergency" black rate in the 1960s. And although the teen pregnancy rate is down, the Urban Institute's "Moynihan Report Revisited" pegs the overall share of black births now occurring outside marriage at more than seven in ten.
Fourth, we have unhelpfully come to so identify our obligations to teenagers with the institution of secondary schooling that we have lost the collective memory of folks who came of age without schooling as the defining formative institution in life. (Note: this was essentially everyone, everywhere, until a century ago.) In most states, year-round secondary schooling went from being voluntary in the 1910s to being a compulsory and near-universal experience by the 1940s. While this obviously brought about much good, an unintended consequence has been that institutionalized schooling displaced work and other multigenerational environments as the context and the culture in which coming of age occurred. Even just after World War II, almost all American families still had many older voices around the dining room table that could — by their own experience — broaden a conversation about growing up to more than just progressing through annual grades in school.
Somewhat paradoxically, even as schooling swallowed most of our mental image of education, it also became shallower in the 1970s and beyond. Some of this evolution toward more secular, bureaucratic schooling followed necessarily from the Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school prayer and religious instruction in the 1960s. Regardless of whether you believe children should have prayer or study religion in school, the removal of those activities had the unintended consequence of removing existential questions about how the individual fits into the bigger, cosmic picture; about our life's purpose.
The moral hollowing of schooling is also attributable to the erosion of secondary education's previously secure place and purpose in preparing kids for steady jobs right after graduation. Education historian Paula Fass traces the drift toward the "warehousing" of our young to schools' loss of their tangible, culminating purpose — to prepare the emerging generation for conclusive entry into adult productivity. Instead, "going to high school became a stop-over during the teen years, with very little to offer beyond academic selection for those who would go on to college ..." When a diploma was no longer a predictable ticket to a full-time, middle-class job and a set of expectations about adulthood, high schools began to fray. Peer culture metastasized to fill the vacuum of purpose. Instead of learning how to behave from their teachers, who no longer really saw their jobs as moral instruction and instilling wisdom acquired through age and experience, kids were learning how to behave from other kids, with predictable results.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Vanishing American Adult"
Copyright © 2017 Ben Sasse.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Introduction: My Kids "Need" Air Conditioning
Part I: Our Passivity Problem
One: Stranded in Neverland
Two: From Little Citizens to Baby Einsteins
Three: More School Isn't Enough
Part II: An Active Program
Four: Flee Age Segregation
Five: Embrace Work Pain
Six: Consume Less
Seven: Travel to See
Eight: Build a Bookshelf
Nine: Make America an Idea Again
Postscript: Why This Wasn't a Policy Book
Afterword: If Teddy Roosevelt Spoke to a High School Graduating Class