When in the Senate chamber, Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, sits by choice at the desk used by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. New York’s scholar-senator would have recognized that Sasse has published a book of political philosophy in the form of a guide to parenting.
Moynihan understood that politics is downstream from culture, which flows through families. Sasse, a Yale history Ph.D. whose well-furnished mind resembles Moynihan’s, understands this:
America is a creedal nation made not by history’s churning but by the decision of philosophic Founders. Modern America, with its enervating comforts — including cosseting parents — and present-minded education that produces cultural amnesia, must deliberately make its citizens. This requires constructing a menu of disciplines, rigors and instructions conducive to the grit, self-reliance and self-possession required for democratic citizenship.
Sasse’s argument in “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance” is not another scolding of the young. Rather, he regrets how the no-longer-young have crippled the rising generation with kindness, flinching from the truth that the good pain of hard physical work produces the “scar tissue of character.”
Adolescents spending scores of hours a week on screen time with their devices acquire “a zombie-like passivity” that saps their “agency.” This makes them susceptible to perpetual adolescence, and ill-suited to the velocity of life in an accelerating world of shorter job durations and the necessity of perpetual learning. In this world, Sasse warns, “college graduates will change not only jobs but industries an average of three times by age thirty.”
Childhood obesity has increased 500 percent in five decades. For “the most medicated generation of youth in history,” sales of ADHD drugs have increased 8 percent a year since 2010. Research shows that teenage texters exhibit addictive, sleep-depriving behaviors akin to those of habit-denying addictive gamblers. Teenagers clutching their devices “are spending nearly two-thirds of their waking hours with their eyes tied down and bodies stationary.” Five million Americans, many of them low-skilled young men, play 45 hours of video games per week.
In the long-running rivalry between the realist and romantic views of human nature, Sasse is firmly with the former. This aligns him against those who believe that schooling should be “a substitute for parents” as life’s “defining formative institution.” In the progressive view of education with which the philosopher John Dewey imbued America’s primary and secondary schools, parents “with their supposedly petty interests in their children as individuals” are deemed retrograde influences, hindering schools’ mission of making malleable young people outfitted with the proper “social consciousness.” Schools should embrace the need of “controlling” students and “the influences by which they are controlled.” Parents must be marginalized lest they interfere with education understood, as Sasse witheringly says, as “not primarily about helping individuals, but rather about molding the collective.”
When America was founded, Sasse the historian reminds us, “nobody commuted to work. People worked where they lived.” Before the “generational segregation” of modern life, children saw adults working, and were expected to pitch in. The replacement of “the gritty parenting of early America” by “a more nurturing approach” coincided with the rise of mass schooling. In 1870, fewer than 2 percent of Americans had high school diplomas. An average of one new high school a day was built between 1890 and 1920, and by 1950, more than 75 percent of Americans were high school graduates.
Sasse, 45, a former university president, regrets neither nurturing nor mass education. He does regret the failure to supplement these softening experiences with rigors sought out for their toughening effects. With ancestral Nebraska memories of hard life on the high plains, Sasse thinks the generation coming of age “has begun life with far too few problems.” He has tried to spare his daughters this disabling aspect of modern life. When his 14-year-old daughter Corrie spent a month at a cattle ranch, her texts included:
“Kids learned that artificial insemination works 60% of the time. Then the ‘clean-up bull’ gets called to duty.” “I’ve gone 4 days w/out a single ‘electrifying experience’ with a fence. I might not have electrocution in my future.” “We’re also castrating bulls today.”
America, Sasse says, needs to teach its children what life used to teach everyone, and what F. Scott Fitzgerald told his daughter: “Nothing any good isn’t hard.” What will be hard is the future of Americans who do not cultivate a toughness that goes against the grain of today’s America.
GEORGE F. WILL is a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist, author and television commentator for The Washington Post Writers Group. He has authored books on baseball, politics, and American culture.