Review of “The Vanishing American Adult” by Senator Ben Sasse

That the American people are increasingly petulant and immature is so common an observation that it is very nearly a tired one at this point. Fortunately, Senator Ben Sasse has written the book The Vanishing American Adult which not only makes this observation (and makes it very well), but also provides a few suggestions for how we might move towards growing up

“But first, we need to agree on the problem.
I believe our entire nation is in the midst of a collective coming-of-age crisis without parallel in our history. We are living in an America of perpetual adolescence. Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore—or how to become one. Many don’t see a reason even to try. Perhaps more problematic, the older generations have forgotten that we need to plan to teach them. It’s our fault more than it is theirs.” (2)

While I suspect most people will agree with what Sasse identifies as the problem, I also suspect that many on the political and ideological Left will not agree with some of his supporting evidence or with his analysis of the cause of the contemporary breakdown of adulthood. If this is you, let me encourage you to keep reading past the first two chapters. Even if you don’t think John Dewey was the Great Satan of American education and even if you do think microaggressions are a serious concern, those aren’t really the overall points of the book. In fact, this book is not terribly political at all—to the point where Sasse had to add a postscript explaining why he didn’t spend any time talking about politics.

Before getting to his proposed solutions, Sasse spends some time debunking the popular cure for our maturity ills most often prescribed: more education. Sasse argues (correctly) that the problem of American perpetual adolescence will not be solved by doubling down on our current education system. Without commenting on the quality of today’s public schools and colleges (which would be a different discussion), he argues that we are using schools in ways that schools weren’t intended to be used:

“Too much formalized schooling inevitably crowds out communities of the heart and soul, voluntarism, flexibility and choice, cross-cultural experience, exertion, success and failure, and time—essentially everything for becoming a fully formed adult, an empathetic citizen, and a worker-learner flexible enough to navigate the accelerated pace of job expiration and change in the new economy.” (77)

In other words, increasing the amount of money and time invested in institutions that aren’t designed to carry the kind of load previously borne by the family and community is at best an exercise in futility, and at worst actively damaging the very children we’re trying to guide into adulthood. Dorothy Sayer’s “Lost Tools of Learning” (also known as “Episode 175 of the Christian Humanist Podcast”) is a better guide to structuring a child’s education than, well, anything by John Dewey. 

So what is the solution to the immaturity of modern Americans? It is of course to grow-up. This can be done by what Sasse identifies as “five character-building habits” (helpfully summarized on pgs 85-87), which include:

1) “Flee age discrimination.” Part of becoming an adult is being around adults and children, rather than always being around people your own age. This means that teenagers should associate with small children and with the middle aged and with the elderly—and if possible attend a childbirth. In addition to giving us access to the wisdom of those who have gone before us and the chance to teach those who haven’t gone as far, it reminds us that life is more than the immediate “now.” We have a past and a future that need to be accounted for as we live in the present. Since we’re by nature going to gravitate towards those like us anyway, I can’t really think of a reason this isn’t a good idea regardless of what one thinks of the rest of Sasse’s suggestions.

2) “Embrace Work Pain.” Once upon a time, Americans were known as workaholics who didn’t know how to take it easy and enjoy the pleasures of a leisurely life. And while there are still individuals who have some kind of work ethic, I don’t know that any rational person would argue that this defines a majority of the rising generation of Americans. That working long and hard hours for low pay might be a rite of passage is simply anathema—as is the idea that this kind of work is necessary to becoming a mature and responsible citizen. Hard work builds endurance, responsibility, and perspective. It teaches us how to suffer and how to power through anyway, even if we don’t expect any reward. It also teaches us a way of looking at the world that a softer life simply cannot provide.

“If you have done any real work, you begin to see a broad range of work differently. And if you’ve been reflective about your and other people’s work, you start to ask questions about where goods and services come from.” (124)

As this work becomes a part of you, it conveys a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the hard work of others and an understanding of the basic difference between “production” and “consumption.” (124)

3) “Consume Less.” It should be an obvious point that consumption won’t satisfy, but a glance at American pop culture tells us that it’s not. (Check out the Sectarian Review episode on Minimalism for further reflection on this point.) The bulk of this chapter is dedicated to surveying the historical causes for our love of consumption. Sasse suggests that what we really need is a good dose of Stoicism as a solution to our consumption problem. Epictetus is a better guide than Madison Avenue, and we would do well to set aside our desire for more in favor of contentment with what we’ve got as we pursue virtue. While this life does not necessarily have to be Spartan, it could probably do with smaller entertainment budgets and more time spent working, reading, and interacting with others.

4) “Travel to See.” The ability to successfully and independently navigate a foreign culture is another important part of being a mature adult. In part this is necessary because it gives us a different perspective on our own culture, but it also teaches us that our values and ideas are not always as universal as we might like to think. If our travel is done correctly then along the way we learn how to properly observe our setting and circumstances and begin to look beyond what is immediately in front of us in our homes. And of course having made such a journey we will have learned the skills necessary to navigate in a new setting or in an unfamiliar culture. (For what it’s worth, when Sasse says “travel” he means it in the broadest possible sense—a trip to an unfamiliar part of our own town can be as useful as a trip to the other side of the world. Difference is far more important than distance.)

5) “Build a Bookshelf” Latching on to Charles Eliot’s famous “five-foot” bookshelf, Sasse argues that we all ought to have a ‘shelf’ of sixty books that we believe to be most important.* Since I suspect few Christian Humanist readers/listeners will need much convincing here, we can probably skip over his supporting arguments. (Much of the chapter is a mini-survey of literacy in America and Sasse’s own list of books in any case.)

Sasse ends with his hope that we will “Make America an Idea Again.” Specifically, we need an educated citizen body that is capable of “self-discipline and self-control”, which “is the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control from without.” (246) If we wish to have a republic, these two characteristics are essential. If we continue to lose these two characteristics, then we’ll be lucky to hold on to the form of the republic for very long after its substance is lost.

Anyone who listens to the City of Man podcast should know that I basically agree with the content of this book. We should spend time with different generations; we should do manual labor when we’re young; we do consume far too much; we should travel a bit; and, perhaps above all, for cryin’ out loud pick up a book people! This isn’t to say there are no criticisms to be made here. For example, as has already been noted, Sasse’s discussion of travel leaves something to be desired. While I think his overall point is fine, the fact is that most of the examples he gives do actually involve exotic travel in foreign lands. At the end of the day, some people just don’t have access to the solutions Sasse proposes. (A criticism that has been made at least once to his face.) I think that points to the broader problem of practical application. For example, even if you don’t live in an urban center, how exactly do you find a farm for your teenager to work on? The church may provide a forum where many of these difficulties can be resolved, but fewer and fewer people are church members.

Even with these limitations, the book is still worth reading if you’re interested in raising responsible adults rather than perpetual children, or if you’re concerned about the future of the republic.

And with all that said, I want to close by throwing down the gauntlet in front of the Christian Humanist crowd—maybe with a couple of gloves thrown in just for good measure. It’s one thing to nod our heads in agreement with the points above; it’s another thing entirely to actually do something in response. To that end, I’d challenge us all to answer a series of questions inspired by the five-foot bookshelf idea, but applied to all of Sasse’s arguments.

1) How do you connect with other generations? (I suppose it should go without saying that this means outside your own family.) If you don’t, how might you start?

2) Where does hard manual labor fit in to your life? In what ways has it or its absence shaped you? How might you correct the absence of manual labor, or pass on its presence to the next generation if you can check that box yourself?

3) In what ways can you reduce your consumption and your desire to consume?

4) Have you traveled well? If not, how might you start? (Remember, this doesn’t have to be to a foreign nation, or even to a different city.)

5) What is your “five-foot shelf of books”? Or, to put it the way Sasse does, what are the 60 books you think are indispensable not only to a liberal education, but to the good life? (And I’ll free one up for you right off the bat, go ahead and leave the Bible out—we all know that one already.)**

If you’re like me, your temptation will be to jump straight to the books—let me encourage you not to do this in your own life, even if the question about books is the only one you answer publicly. I really do want to hear your answers to question five, but I really don’t want to encourage you to bare your souls online in response to the first four questions (because good Lord there’s enough of that out there already). So, you know, you’re on your honor to answer the first four in person with people who know you well before tackling question five on the internet.

All of that to say, The Vanishing American Adult is excellent and I am happy to recommend that you give it a read.



*The wife and I have had some discussion over the nature of the “five-foot” shelf. Did Charles Eliot mean a single shelf five feet long? Or an entire bookshelf five feet high? Because frankly 60 books like Calvin’s Institutes and Augustine’s City of God won’t fit on a single five-foot shelf. On the other hand, a bookshelf five feet tall would hold far more than 60 books, especially if they’re slim books like Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Luther’s Bondage of the Will. And now you know what we talk about over dinner in the Neal household…
For the record, by my measurement a single shelf five feet long will hold 44 City of God sized volumes (the Nicene/Post-Nicene Fathers edition), or 82 books of varying-but-more-normal dimensions; while a five-foot tall set of bookshelves will hold 125 City of Gods (Cities of God?) or 235 regular-sized books. All this to say that I think we should take Sasse’s suggestion literally and actually build something to hold the sixty books we pick.

**And, because I’m interested, here is an additional question: what is your “five-foot shelf of electronic media”? This question is in a footnote because it completely undermines Sasse’s point, but I’m genuinely interested in the answer: what 60 movies/albums/video games/etc would be on your five-foot shelf?