The Vanishing American Adult | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 02, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:16 AM, December 02, 2017

The Vanishing American Adult

Ben Sasse, St. Martins, ISBN 978-1427283092, 2017.

Benjamin Eric Sasse aka Ben Sasse is a freshman Republican Senator from Nebraska. A doctorate in American History from Yale, Sasse was named President of Midwestern University, Freemont Nebraska in 2010.

Senator Sasse thinks that American youths have drifted away from the founding principles of American society. He feels that the coming of age rituals of learning the value of working with their own hands and leaving home to start a family and becoming economically self-reliant are being delayed or skipped altogether nowadays. The statistics do not make Americans like him happy: 30 percent of college students drop out after one year and only 40 percent graduate; a third of all 18-to 34-year olds live with their parents; and most young people over 13 are spending 60 percent of their waking hours consuming media.

Sasse observed such things from a close range when he was the President of Midwestern University and viewed them as threats to the American way of life. It was with such emotions in him that he wrote The Vanishing American Adult.

For every nation the path to adulthood has always been clear. It is a path of events and achievements. Ancient Roman law divided the three stages of life before adulthood into three seven-year segments: infantia (birth through age 6), pueritia (7 to 13), pubertus (14 to 20). The third stage is adolescence, 'a moratorium on adulthood'. It is understood to be finite, but its endpoints debatable. Endless adolescence is a calamity, because it is only meant to be a means to an end—adulthood.

In his words, America wasn't built to enable perpetual adolescence. American youths now need to be more gritty and resilient than those in the previous age. He thinks this is a challenge American society must take up!

In fact, coming of age is a trial for every society.  Sasse sees the foreboding prospect of an American society that is not ready for the future because its youths are distracted and drifting. American parents are against the idea that their children should spend more time on institutional education.

Senator Ben Sasse's approach to the transition from dependence to self-sustaining adulthood is organized around five broad themes. These are:  Overcoming peer culture; Working hard; Resisting consumption; Traveling to experience the difference between "need" and "want"; Becoming truly literate.

Overcoming Peer Culture: This is his prudent advice for overcoming the tyranny of the present. One basic way is to know other people, particularly older ones. And the other equally important way is to understand the reality of the body. He finds the hyper-generational segregation of the time bizarre, unhealthy and historically unprecedented. Most young people's time, he feels, is spent in age-segregated environment. This is marked by the peer culture of the school and by the narcissistic autonomy of digital world. Apparently, the US government spends $620 billion on public and secondary school. There is however angst about what America is getting its return. He feels that adulthood has to steer away from overwhelmingly school-centric education. Sasse observes that it is a matter of concern that average American males played more than 14,000 hours of video games by the time they turn 21. They make them passive, intellectually fragile and obese!

Senator Sasse exhorts the young to discover the body—its potential and frailty, and the diverse stages of life that lie ahead. They need to appreciate the joys of birth and growth and the pain that comes with declining health. Death is the hardest reality but it's typical of young people to think themselves as indestructible. He feels that young adults are cut off from older generations and the reality of human frailty. By spending time only with people roughly their age, he feels that their understanding of life and death is severely attenuated!

Embracing hard work: Senator Sasse observes that American society is bizarrely trying to protect its young people from hard experiences! American youths should know that hard work is not to be avoided; it should be embraced. The only thing to do is“grin and bear it, to flinch as little as possible under the punishment, to keep pegging steadily away until the luck turns." He goes on to tell the reader how he arrived at young adulthood in the early 1990s assuming that work was a near-universal component of an American upbringing and maturation. During his five years at Midland University as its President it conducted surveys annually on the highs and the lows of students' university experience. Dispiritingly, students overwhelmingly highlighted their desire for freedom from responsibilities. They enjoyed sleeping, skipping class and partying!

In contrast, he notes how the founding fathers of America had an almost compulsive preference for productivity over passivity. In Benjamin Franklin's book Poor Richard's Almanac, Poor Richard says, "he that lives upon hope will die fasting." The longheld American ideal is that work is a necessary component of becoming fully formed adult and that a life well lived entails a forward leaning embrace of responsibility.

Consuming Less: Senator Sasse observes that America knows that Americans consume exorbitant amounts of media every day, whether on television, on the internet, on tablets and smartphones. Contemporary studies from American psychologist and sociologists more or less say that consumption is not the key to happiness; production is. Consumption just consumes!

But Ben Sasse knows that “hard work produces wealth, which then produces leisure.” However, across generations people drift to know only the leisure. Ruefully, the culture they breathe has transformed what used to be "wants" into norms and therefore "needs". He underscores the truth that work builds character.

He asks ruefully: where did America go wrong? A survey conducted by Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith on moral beliefs of 18- to 23 year olds found that 65% percent said that shopping and buying give them lot of pleasure. America is a consumer's paradise. The sociologist and his team found that the generation of emerging adults might be neglecting the difference between need and want.

Traveling to see: "You can learn a lot about your culture by experiencing other cultures" -exhorts the Nebraskan Senator. He goes on to say that meaningful travel isn't about partying in Cancun or visiting tourist--only-- parts of foreign ports of call. It is about engaging people in a culture who have assumptions about life, about economics, about the role of governments far different from America's.

There is a satisfying approach to traveling, Ben Sasse assures -- one that provides a valuable perspective on one's own life and the lives of others. He notes that like hard work, it is challenging; the goal here is discovery-- which Americans can accomplish with big curiosity. He explains the observation by saying that the key distinction is between active seeking and venturing and learning on the one hand, and passively taking in the sights on the other hand. "The traveler [is] an active man at work" and by contrast "the tourist is passive."

Becoming truly literate: He wants to know if young adults really know how to read, that is to say, read well? This is to read critically - and therefore to think critically. In contrast, he says Americans tend to skim. He regrets that literacy has been in absolute decline since the 1960s. 

Senator Ben Sasse underscores the fact that America's future depends on the kind of thinking that reading presupposes and nourishes and that such thinking demands a rebirth of reading. He went on to say that becoming truly literate is a choice; reading done well is not passive activity like sitting in front of screen. And he reveals that according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average American now reads only nineteen minutes per day!

Senator Ben Sasse urges young American Adults, "If you want to live a free and prosperous life, you need to be literate." Then he focuses on how from the middle of the twentieth century, television replaced papers and magazines as Americans' primary source of information. As a decision making device he settles for a personal list of 60 books: five books for each of the twelve categories. He will have a five feet shelf for his twelve categories. God; Greek Roots; Homesick souls (or, fundamental anthropology); Shakespeare; The American idea; Markets; Tyrants; The Nature of Things (or, a Humanistic Perspective on Science, American Fiction. These amount to nine but he leaves it to adult readers to debate and decide on the concluding categories.

Senator Ben Sasse concludes with the observation that the ancient Greeks and Romans distinguished between those who age like grapes into fine wine and those who age like grapes souring into vinegar. "We want future generations of Americans to mature, not sour." He eloquently goes on to say that American youth are to become tougher, not coarser; resilient not rigid; engaged in real life, not lost in "virtual reality; richer in experience, not embittered by it; leaders, not lemmings knocked around by fads and circumstance. That's adulthood rightly understood.

Something for us in Bangladesh to think about too!


Syed Maqsud Jamil writes creatively and is an occasional contributor to Star Literature and Reviews Pages.

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