Review: The Vanishing American Adult

I didn’t read Senator Ben Sasse‘s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance when it initially came out because I was put off by the title. Do we really need another anti-millennial book? And is anyone truly self-reliant in contemporary culture? Moreover, I was reluctant to read yet another politician dictating policy solutions when he has little grasp on those upon whom he is prescribing policy. Indeed, I only picked up the book at the recommendation of my friend, T.K. Small. I’m glad T.K. recommended the book and have since learned not to judge a book by its title (or it’s author’s profession)!

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What first impressed me about Sasse was his writing itself. I was not expecting syntax and diction that were pleasant to read; I suppose a stereotype Nebraskans as boring farmers, but Sasse’s style is entertaining. Moreover, it is based in fact; he uses a fine balance of academic literature and personal anecdote to convey information in a well-paced manner.

And, although the beginning of the book does discuss how millennial Americans fail to meet many of the standards of their forbearers, Sasse does not blame millennials for these shortcomings. Rather, he takes the reader through an interesting history of the American education system and the goals of social reformers like John Dewey. As immigrants arrived from various backgrounds and jobs became harder to get, school was a good place to stick new arrivals and provide a standardized baseline. However, education transitioned from the classical toward the pragmatic. More time was continually devoted to the classroom, taking students away from family, the community, and jobs. Learning became a passive endeavor.

Dewey’s student ultimately has no soul. The only thing that matters, in the end, is man’s relation to his society. The societal here and now is the all in all. The goal is expressly not the full flowering of the individual, but rather ‘all education preceded by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.’

Certainly, other factors contribute to the lack of well-roundedness with which today’s young adults must grapple, but the mere fact that so much of one’s youth is spent in the classroom contributes significantly to the problem.

In the second, and largest, part of the book, Sasse offers concrete ideas for helping youth grow into adulthood. Importantly, none of the five proposals is a policy idea, but instead direct action that parents can take to enrich the lives of their children. He proposes: ensuring that young people spend time with those of a range of ages and experiences; arranging for youth to work; diminishing consumption of material goods; traveling; and sharing great works of literature with young people. Sasse uses his own family’s practices as examples for instituting the above ideas, but also recognizes that implementation will look different for every family. For example, he notes that one need not travel far in order to try one’s hand at navigating, managing a new environment, and participating in new experiences.

I’ve already noted that I was impressed with the book, and believe others would learn from its pages. In particular, I would recommend this book to parents and those who have children in their lives, including aunts, uncles, and mentors.

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