By Jay Lehr / Heartland Institute
The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, by Ben Sasse (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), 320 pages, ISBN-13 978-1250114402, $16.78 on Amazon.com.
In his travels across the country, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) has met many Americans from varied backgrounds and walks of life, all expressing, in their own words and ways, a common fear for the nation’s future.
Sasse’s book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, draws upon his personal experiences and conversations with everyday Americans to synthesize and explain this widespread concern for the next generation’s well-being.
Drawing on the time-honored wisdom of philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and many other well-known thinkers in the canon, Sasse argues the American values of self-reliance and hard work have been largely forgotten, and he offers concrete prescriptions for reviving the American spirit.
Unready to Lead?
Many people sense something is currently wrong with our society, but Sasse’s laser-focused diagnosis of the root cause hits home: The generation tasked with picking up their elders’ mantle and leading the nation is ill-prepared to do so.
The kids are not all right, and something is very wrong with America, Sasse writes.
“Our kids are not ready for the world they are soon going to inherit,” Sasse writes. “We don’t even know how to talk about the daunting tasks of becoming resilient enough to navigate a world with much shorter job durations.… Everywhere I go across the country, I hear from people who share an ominous sense that something is very wrong with our kids, but they don’t always have hooks or labels or a mental framework to discuss it.”
Philosophy, Not Politics
The dimming of the American spirit is not rooted in politics, Sasse writes, nor will politics provide the spark to reignite it among the people.
“Some pretend for a moment that the grand fights are political, that what they’re really worried about is right versus left, but mostly they know it isn’t true,” Sasse writes. “They know that almost all of our kids seem to be distracted and drifting. They yearn for the rising generation of American teens to be grittier, more self-possessed, more self-sufficient, more ready to serve.”
A common theme in The Vanishing American Adult is the necessity of instilling resilience in the hearts of the people.
Learning to survive and thrive in difficult or uncomfortable situations builds self-esteem, teaching one how to defy the tempest instead of feeling disenfranchised by short-term setbacks, Sasse writes.
“Much of our stress now flows not from deprivation, but, oddly, from surplus,” Sasse writes. “It’s too easy to be pampered, and being pampered is the opposite of growing muscle—and character. Both of these come from scar tissue. One antidote for the pampered life is a taste of stoicism.
“I reject the notion that stoic is ‘indifferent’; rather, the stoic is strong enough and long-term-focused enough to not be tossed about by short-term changes beyond his or her control,” Sasse writes. “Someone who is stoic appears calm under stressful circumstances—the man or woman whose internal equipoise is not dominated by external conditions.”
Another key value lacking in today’s culture is an understanding of the principles on which America was built, and the history of those principles.
In a particularly engaging section, Sasse explains the value of the information to which people today have access, identifying Johannes Gutenberg as one of the most important individuals in human history.
According to Sasse, the democratization of information, a “bloodless revolution” sparked by Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press in 1440, facilitated the American Revolution by allowing the Founding Fathers to take their case for self-rule directly to the people.
A series of radically unprecedented events and people, such as Gutenberg and his invention, contributed to America’s formation, Sasse writes, and allowed the American ideal of self-government to be just such a significant outlier in human history.
“For our emerging adults to understand America’s place in world history—and to participate fully as inheritors in this project of self-government and resilient citizenship—they must first comprehend what an outlier it is, across the sweep of human experience, for every single one of us to have cheap and easy access to books,” Sasse writes. “The origins and perpetuation of this experiment in self-rule are simply not understandable without grasping how unprecedented it was for our Founders to be able to make the argument for the universal engagement of a people in deliberation about their own self-governance.”
The Vanishing American Adult is not a traditional book about policy, instead striking expertly at the cultural core of the nation’s problems. Instead of pitting “right” ideas versus “left” ideas or Republican Party proposals against Democratic Party policies, Sasse argues for refreshing and rekindling the nation’s soul.
A simple, earnest yearning for cultural greatness emerges from every word of Sasse’s book, making it an easy and enjoyable read.
Curing the sickness plaguing the country’s culture requires not a political effort but a cultural one. The Vanishing American Adult is a thought-provoking, philosophical diagnosis and treatment regimen for readers of all ages and backgrounds. It is just what the doctor ordered for today’s divided times.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. is the science director at The Heartland Institute.
Copyright 2017 Southern Arizona News-Examiner