In February 2016, as Donald Trump’s star was unexpectedly rising, a Republican senator stood athwart history, yelling Stop. A mere two years after one of those uncompetitive midterm elections that, for most Americans, are little more than a blip on the CNN chyron, Nebraska’s freshman senator, Ben Sasse, announced on Facebook that he could not in good conscience support either Trump or Hillary Clinton. We can do better than the two candidates who would eventually face off in November, he insisted. Smelling the sort of intraparty blood they like to feast on, the media came circling.
On paper, Sasse must have struck them as a familiar sort of Republican rube: devoted family man, anti-abortion, God-fearin’ patriot, and conservative as the summer Nebraska corn is high. (“I’m one of the most conservative members of the Senate,” Sasse often proudly repeats.) They could not have been expecting the wunderkind they would meet in the small town of Fremont, Neb., 30 miles northwest of Omaha. A Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in history from Yale, well traveled, social-media-savvy, Sasse was not just “articulate” — the preferred term for those in public life who manage to pull together something resembling a coherent series of thoughts on a cable-news segment — he was whip-smart, thoughtful, and deeply versed in history and constitutional principles. His highly developed sense of East Coast irony made even Rachel Maddow smile. Inevitably, a Beltway class always on the lookout for the next election headliner began to stroke their chins.
Now the senator has written a book. If it’s a candidate introduction, it’s an unusual one: Although The Vanishing American Adult doesn’t neglect the familiar candidate fare — memories of fishing trips and flinty grandparents, and party-friendly political wisdom — it is primarily a how-to book for parents on child-rearing and education. Don’t go looking for Dr. Spock or What to Expect, though; Sasse’s model is more along the lines of Locke and Rousseau.
In fact, what really sets The Vanishing American Adult apart from the typical parenting guide is its moral grounding in political philosophy, civics, and history. It’s the American child and parent that interest the senator. In 2009, when he was 37 years old, Sasse was appointed president of Midland University in his hometown and was soon struck by the lack of self-motivation and persistence among his students and younger staff. How, he wondered, would these “distracted and drifting” — and indifferently reared — young people become the sort of mindful, self-directed, and resolute citizens who had made the United States the world’s richest democracy? The present time, especially, demands stalwarts: Given widespread economic disruption and job instability, “the generation now coming of age is going to need even more grit and resilience than previous ages.”
“Kids today” laments are a risky genre for intellectually ambitious writers, but Sasse avoids the temptation of wagging his finger at anyone. He views what he calls our “cultural amnesia about child-rearing” as a logical if inadequate response to profound economic and technological changes; we are “an accidentally spoiled society.” Harvesting insight from thinkers ranging from Augustine and the Stoics to Dorothy Sayers and Alanis Morissette, Sasse shows how attitudes toward child-rearing and education have always shifted to meet the challenges of a particular age.
In agricultural America, for example, children had no choice but to become gritty; there was no other way to get through the daily routines of farm life. In a period of mass immigration and industrialization, however, future citizens needed more years of formal education. Americans moved the young out of the fields and cottage apprenticeships and into the new institutions of the middle and high school.
Segregated from hard work and adult challenges, growing up began taking longer while also becoming more peer-dominated and “absurd,” in Paul Goodman’s famous word. Rising affluence, which included television and other leisure-enhancing technologies, further insulated the young from their communities, their elders, and the realities of birth, aging, and death. In more recent decades, as four-year college and professional schooling have attracted an even larger population of twentysomethings, adolescence has been extended even longer into a formless period that sociologists sometimes refer to as “emerging adulthood.”
Parents cannot expect schools alone to counter these forces, Sasse insists. You could read his book as an extended debate with John Dewey, a philosopher the author views as helping to make educators the chief guardians of children’s and adolescents’ development. In so doing, Dewey accelerated the “hollowing out” of our understanding of education in the broadest sense.
The homeschooling Sasse and his wife have devised amounts to a series of “extreme measures” to ensure their children’s intellectual and character development. Their approach is sure to become the most talked-about element of the book; parts of it will strike some parents as unrealistic and possibly even a little batty (he recommends journals for chronicling junk-food intake and wasted hours). He devotes a chapter to reading lists to fill in the massive blanks in today’s school curricula. He invents ways to help his children “learn how to suffer” without complaining, because “a good American needs to be tough.” “Raise them as if they’ll rule someday,” he writes in one memorable sentence.
Teaching kids how to suffer without complaint might seem to be the point at which today’s helicopter parents would draw the line. (But maybe we’ve misjudged them?) The author came up with the idea for the book after tweeting some text messages he received from his 14-year-old daughter. The girl was spending the summer working on a cattle ranch where she learned to drive a manual-transmission tractor, coil barbed wire, and help castrate bulls. His tweets went viral: “Parents wanted to know how they could make their kids suffer too,” he quips. (Judges might not agree; after he published an article in the Wall Street Journal about his ranch-hand daughter, lawyers contacted him to let him know he had probably violated child-labor laws.)
Unfairly or not, readers will find it impossible to read The Vanishing American Adult without thinking about the political future of its exceptional author — assuming he avoids the clutches of child-welfare authorities. The Cornhusker-loving Ph.D.-senator surely knows this. He is introducing himself to the broader American public at a moment when many are longing for a break-the-mold politician. Sasse’s constitutionally grounded arguments, his deep grasp of the American experiment, and his “happy warrior” style offer the promise of a different kind of antidote to Democratic identity politics than that personified by our current polarizer in chief.
Whatever path he follows, it’s a good guess his three children will suffer without complaint.
– Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Her most recent book is The New Brooklyn.