One of today’s most accomplished United States Senators, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, has recently published The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, c. 2017). He felt impelled to write this treatise by the growing conviction that “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” (#47 in Kindle). He realized this problem while serving as the president of Midland University (affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Fremont, Nebraska, where many students seemed adrift and unable to assume adult responsibilities. He also awakened to the fact that his three “pampered daughters” seemed unprepared to flourish in the world awaiting them.
Sasse devotes the first section of his book to “the problem: How do we know the situation with our kids has really gotten worse” (#146). In essence, the problem is the passivity evident in J. M. Barrie’s story of Peter Pan, who wanted to neither attend “‘school and learn solemn things’” nor to “be a man’” (#206). He wanted to be (in the words of Bob Dylan) “forever young,” without tasks or accountability. This is something new in America, where children early worked with their parents and, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “appeared not to need an adolescent stage at all” (#599). Still more: Peter Pan represents, for Sasse, the alarming fact that “No civilization has ever embraced endless adolescence” (#219). Throughout human history children moved rather rapidly through adolescence to adulthood; they aspired to be adults and early imitated their ways. (Today, strangely enough, many adults remain childish and seek to dress and behave in accord with their fashions!)
It’s clear that American youngsters are getting “softer.” Childhood obesity has skyrocketed from less than one in twenty 50 years ago to one in five today. The toy industry, which hardly existed a century ago, now hauls in a billion dollars a year. Historically undetected behavioral problems now require a bewildering mixture of medications, running from Ritalin to Prozac to Xanax. Video games, for many, have replaced physical activity. “Fully one-quarter of Americans between age 25 and 29 now live with a parent—compared to only 18 percent just over a decade ago” (#673), and only 23 percent of them were married. Some scholars predict that fully one-fourth of the Millennials will never marry. Whereas 50 years ago fully 90 percent of collegians attended religious services, fully 35 percent of today’s Millennials have no religious ties. They seem to be psychologically vulnerable, seeking “safe spaces” and sensitive to a variety of “micro-aggressions” that hurt their feelings.
Representing—and rather responsible—for this cultural upheaval, Sasse thinks, is John Dewey, considered by many “America’s foremost philosopher.” He is, without question, the father of the “progressive” educational agenda now reigning in the nation’s schools, and ultimately “he is responsible for allowing schools to undermine how Americans once turned children into adults” (#425). To Dewey, school was not envisioned as “an instrument supporting parents” by teaching youngsters reading, writing and arithmetic. Neither was it a place to master classical or modern languages, nor to understand history and philosophy. Rather, the school was to be an agency of the state seeking to shape evolving youngsters into effective workers and citizens. Though Dewey may not have intended his child-centered program to prolong adolescence, that’s what took place as the 20th century ended.
Since America’s schools contribute to the problem, Sasse argues entitles one chapter: “More School Isn’t Enough.” We need to take seriously Mark Twain’s quip: “I never let school interfere with my education.” As the son of teachers, Sasse treats them respectfully, but all too often our public schools, as Paul Goodman said, engage in “compulsory mis-education.” We expend lots of money and accomplish little! During the past 30 years federal spending on education has quintupled without securing any measurable effect—the U.S. now ranks 20th in science and 27th in math on international tests. Kids spend more time in classrooms than ever before, “yet they leave high school for college or the workforce less prepared and less able to cope with the next stage of their lives” (#1172). As A Nation at Risk warned in 1983, “‘a rising tide of mediocrity . . . threatens our very future as a Nation and people.’ The authors cried out: ‘If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war’” (#1206). To counter Dewey’s “progressive” educational philosophy, Sasse turns to Dorothy Sayers, who penned “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1948. Sasse considers it “the most important essay on education written in the last century,” and she is the “patron saint of the educational philosophy underpinning this book” (#1363). Sayers sensed that the “‘artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity’” would lead to irresponsibility and societal decline. Only by recovering the “lost tools of learning” embodied in the trivium/quadrivium-based classical curricula can this trend be reversed.
Having assessed the problem, Senator Sasse turns to exploring solutions. Begin, he says, by minimizing, if not eliminating, the “age segregation” which seems closely correlated with antisocial behavior. Until modern times, multigenerational families lived and worked together, providing healthy routes to adulthood for the young. Living in a segregated “youth” culture, today’s youngsters know very little about adults and rely unwisely on their peers. Attending “youth” worship services in church, for example, they fail to learn how wiser and more experienced persons approach God. Significantly, a study by the Fuller Youth Institute found: “‘involvement in all-church [intergenerational] worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation’” (#1532). A truly good education should bring together the elderly and the youthful. As Cicero said, in On Old Age: “‘People who say there are no useful activities for old age don’t know what they’re talking about. They are like those who say a pilot does nothing useful for sailing a ship because others climb the masts, run along the gangways, and work the pumps while he sits quietly in the stern holding the rudder’” (#1577). Especially important, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, older folks need to provide healthy perspectives on marriage and family sorely lacking in today’s youth culture.
Then we must help youngsters “embrace work pain” in order to grow up. Senator Sasse is close enough to Nebraska’s soil to appreciate the “hardness” of farm work that made the state! At the tender age of seven he was sent by his parents to “walk beans” in a local soybean field, learning first-hand the meaning of hard work, and he’s come to believe, with Theodore Roosevelt that “Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” Consequently, he and his wife agreed to send one of their daughters to work for on a Nebraska ranch for a month—soon discovering the necessity of manual labor. But when he became a college president Sasse found the 21st century students arriving at Midland University with no appreciation of the pain required to do good work. As a 37 year old man he was taken aback to find Midland’s students markedly different from those of his generation. These “Millennials” shunned responsibilities and mainly relished “sleeping in, skipping class, and partying” (#2072). To a degree they are rightly branded “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous,” (#2078) and unable to meet adult expectations.
To successfully transition to adulthood, our youngsters also need to “consume less.” To do so runs counter to one of the most marked traits of the Millennials, who generally think buying things, getting more stuff, will make they happier. But despite this nation’s great wealth, surveys show Americans to be less happy than they were half-a-century ago. We’ve not learned, with Socrates, that: “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” Somehow we, and our children, need to learn that life is truly satisfying to the extent we produce goods rather than consume them. Along with consuming less, we need to travel more—to learn, by personal discovery, how cultures differ, why world works as it does. As Mark Twain wrote: “Broad, wholesome, charitable view of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Then we need to “build a bookshelf” suitable for living well. “Critical, engaged reading skills are not a luxury, but rather a necessity for responsible adults and responsible citizens” (#3511). We absolutely need a “rebirth of reading” if we’re to flourish as a people. But younger folks are reading less and less. (I recently saw a New York City commuter who’d been riding the train into the city for 30 years; in earlier years, most every passenger would be reading a newspaper or magazine, but now they all seem to be playing games on hand-held electronic devices!) Intimidated by the likes of Jesse Jackson, leading Stanford University students chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go!,” American colleges and universities have dramatically eliminated required courses in both foreign languages and the humanities, thus effectively eliminating expansive reading experiences, provoking scholarly protests in the 1980s from E.D. Hirsh (Cultural Literacy) and Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind). While various writers may propose somewhat different lists of books everyone should read, Senator Sasse cites 60 basic texts he finds truly worthy of consideration—ranging from Homer and Aristotle in the ancient world to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King in the 20th century. Each of us would, if we resolved to address the task, set forth a different set of essential books for ourselves and our families. What would really help, however, is if we would simply do so! If not, Sasse’s list is a helpful place to start!
Obviously concerned with the state of the American union, Senator Sasse concludes his work by urging readers to join him in strengthening our culture by helping our children become responsible adults and thereby strengthening the republic. This is a fine treatise, attuned to significant issues, deserving widespread reading, reflection, and discussion.
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For many years Christian Smith, currently a professor at Notre Dame, has released scholarly sociological studies detailing evident characteristics in young Americans. In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, c. 2011), he and a team of researchers provide information essential for understanding this nation’s 18-23-year-old “emerging adults.” Though Smith commends much in this demographic group, Lost in Transition focuses only on the darker side of their portrait—their “mistakes and losses, trials and grief, confusions and misguided living” (p. 3). The youngsters we encounter are the beneficiaries of both higher education and their parents’ willingness to care for them well into their 30s; they are delaying marriage, in part because of widely-available contraceptive technologies; and they struggle to adjust to the realities of a global economy that makes employment increasingly problematic. They have, still more, to a large degree embraced many of the postmodern views (ethical relativism and multiculturalism) espoused by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Derrida and popularized by MTV and simplistic high school teachers.
Given their postmodern views, many emerging adults are morally adrift, embracing varieties of ethical relativism, one of their more “unsettling” traits. One third of them claim not to know why anything is right or wrong! Sixty percent of them take “a highly individualistic approach to morality. They said that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision. Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion” (p. 21). One interviewed woman thinks stealing is wrong—at least for her! But if others steal it’s not really wrong— just a “dumb thing to do.” With moral decisions reduced to personal opinions, no one should “judge” another person’s behavior and there is no need to work for any social consensus on moral standards. One woman even refused to condemn mass-murdering terrorists! In her opinion: “‘It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good’” (p. 28). Just live according to your notion of “good” and keep quiet regarding anyone else’s! Many emerging adults know nothing of moral philosophy, traditional religion, or anything other than their inner feelings. Nearly three-fourths of them simply follow their “instincts,” apparently thinking moral knowledge is innate and intuitively knowable. Lacking objective moral standards, they think “anything could be morally right, then, as long as someone believes it” (p. 29). Shocking though it may seem, that’s “the professed outlook of nearly one-third of emerging adults today” (p. 29). Though a third of emerging adults want to reject such extreme relativistic thinking, they lack the “moral-reasoning skills” to do so. A substantial minority of the respondents did refer to God or the Bible, but they frequently lacked the conceptual skills to draw upon their religious traditions when explaining their ethical views.
Their failure to reason well results, Smith suggests, from the “multicultural” indoctrination they receive in virtually all American schools. If different cultures have different moral standards, they must all be accepted and respected in accord with their own perspectives. To avoid being labeled a “racist,” emerging adults are ready to approve virtually anything done by groups different from theirs. This squares with their commitment to what philosophers call “positive law” rather than the “natural law” espoused by classical and Christian thinkers. Positive law is whatever a regime (whether hereditary or democratic) decrees. Thus what may be right Stalin’s USSR could be wrong in Roosevelt’s USA; what was wrong in the 19th century (e.g. abortion) becomes right when the Supreme Court decrees it in the 20th.
From the authors’ perspective, “the widespread moral individualism and solid minority presence of moral relativism among emerging adults today tells us that the adult world that has socialized these youth for 18 to 23 years has done an awful job when it comes to moral education and formation” (p. 60). “They are morally at sea in boats that leak water badly” (p. 60). Especially important is the lack of those “intellectual virtues” Aristotle mandated in his Ethics. The Postmodern contempt for any form of realism has seriously truncated the Millennials’ reasoning skills. “Central to many of the confusions in emerging adult moral reasoning is the inability to distinguish between objectively real moral truths or facts and people’s human perceptions or understandings of those moral truths or facts. The error of not distinguishing these two things is this: the realities themselves are confused with, and therefore dependent upon, people’s cognitive grasp of them. What actually exists is conflated into what is believed to exist” (p. 61). Consequently, as a society we face a huge task. As the noted philosopher Charles Taylor observed: “‘We have to fight uphill to rediscover the obvious, to counteract the layers of suppression of modern moral consciousness’” (p. 69).
In addition to moral relativism, today’s emerging adults are generally devout consumers, especially of the high-tech and entertainment items that have emerged during their lifetimes. Consequently, “between one-half to two-thirds of emerging adults said that their well-being can be measured by what they own, that buying more things would make them happier, and that they get a lot of pleasure simply from shopping and buying things” (p. 71). Intangible goods seem irrelevant to them, since less than ten percent “spoke of knowing God or making God proud, deepening their life of faith, or being more religious” (p. 105). They want stuff, not spirit! They give little thought to their acquisitiveness, considering it as normal and inescapable as breathing. Though a few aspects of mass consumption may trouble them, they see no need to change anything, guided as they are by some of the “key assumptions of liberal individualism” (p. 80). “All that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals who are out to enjoy life. The idea of people changing their own lifestyles or of mobilizing for collective social or economic change is nearly unimaginable” (p. 86).
Illuminating this consumerist mentality, one respondent said: “‘A good life for me would be to have more than enough money than I actually need, and live like a kid the rest of my life. That would be my little heaven in today’s reality. Yeah, it’s consuming a lot of stuff, but at the same time, if you can afford it, what is money anyway? Money is meant to be spent, so why not? You only live once, and if you have the chance to live in excess, why not?’” (p. 95). This attitude explains their utilitarian approach to education. “Not many emerging adults talk about the intrinsic enrichment of an education, of the personal broadening and deepening of one’s understanding and appreciation of life and the world that expansive learning affords. Few emerging adults talk about the value of a broad education for shaping people into informed and responsible citizens in civic life, for producing members and leaders of society who can work together toward the common good” (p. 101). They go to school for one reason: to get a good (i.e. well-paying) job.
When getting more stuff fails to make them happy, many emerging adults turn to the timeless illusions of wine, women, and song! They routinely seek to get “high, stoned, buzzed, and drunk” (p. 110). Rather than drinking in moderation, significant numbers of them routinely engage in binge drinking and smoking pot when partying—ways to escape their “boring” lives. They also seek satisfaction in sexual engagements. “What were once daring and rebellious acts of ‘love’ outside of committed relationships have now for many emerging adults become routine, almost pedestrian” (p. 148). Yet, though trumpeted as “liberating” and “fun,” the hook-up culture has proved deeply disturbing—especially for women. “We were struck by the number of very traumatic breakups that we heard described in interviews, since we assumed that emerging adults generally want to hold off on seriously committed relationships. But the truth is that, while most emerging adults do want to hold off on marriage, many of them—again, particularly women, it appears—also long for the kind of intimacy, loyalty, and security that only committed relationships can deliver” (p. 154). The authors conclude that “the sexual revolution’s promise of easy, safe, uncomplicated, fulfilling, casual sex” has dramatically failed (p. 176). It’s failed simply because it cannot alter one of the most basic aspects of human nature—the need for fidelity and permanence in sexual relations. Sadly enough: “not far beneath the surface appearance of a happy, liberated emerging adult sexual adventure and pleasure lies a world of hurt, insecurity, confusion, inequality, shame and regret” (p. 195). Finally, today’s emerging adults seem unusually disengaged from the “civic and political” world. “Citizenship is not a word in their vocabularies” (p. 223). Self-absorbed, uninformed and apathetic, they take little interest in community, church, or national affairs, volunteering little of their time and contributing none of their money.
No one interested in solid data regarding today’s Millennials can ignore Lost In Transition. As a nation, we’ve failed to provide the nurturing institutions and winsome mentors obviously needed by the younger generation. And though Christian Smith admits to not knowing exactly what to do, speaking the truth is the first step in finding a cure to the “malady” crippling our emerging adults.