The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis
and How To Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
Some days, the notion of an open mind seems a relic of an earlier time. Our cultural moment demands certainty and opposing viewpoints just muddy the waters.
What if it’s not a cultural moment, though?
As I read this book I often found myself wondering if educated people– the sort who read books like this–aren’t walking a Möbius strip, forever identifying problems that only they, with their fine educations and professional occupations, have the necessary skills to address.
Ben Sasse is the junior United States Senator from Nebraska, an office he has held since 2015. I’m a bit of a political junkie but there are plenty of senators whose names I wouldn’t recognize. To stand out from the pack you have to do something notorious enough to catch my attention.
For Senator Sasse the 2016 election season served that purpose. Alone, for a while, among other members of his party, he was willing to question the fitness of Donald Trump for President.
I won’t address that question but Sasse said a number of things that made sense to me: the candidate doesn’t understand the Constitution, especially the First Amendment; his refusal to condemn the Ku Klux Klan is troubling; he seems to think he’s running for king. (You decide if we’ve seen any of those in the last nine months.)
I love a good bomb thrower and suddenly there was one within the very heart of the GOP.
So l learned a bit about the Senator with the seemingly anarchic heart. He was, it seems, a boy wonder. A Yale PhD in history and one of the nation’s youngest college presidents prior to entering politics. I wondered if he was a true successor to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Well, I don’t have to wonder any longer and DPM can remain secure in his rest.
In the Reformed tradition a lot of attention is paid to the role of the elect. That refers to the group of people bound to enter heaven. We have a secular elect. This group of well-credentialed folks have risen to the top of the heap, arguably by merit, gone to the best schools and, as a result, get to run things. Sasse fits right in
Except I found myself puzzled by what didn’t add up. Senator Moynhian was the real deal. His academic work was widely regarded (I was assigned one of his early books as an undergraduate) and he worked shaping public policy for both Democratic and Republican administrations before running for the Senate.
By contrast, Ben Sasse is a cipher. There’s the doctorate, the fancy educational pedigree, the college presidency, and this peculiar sentence: “The University’s board of directors had hired me as a 37-year old not because I had any special insight into shaping 18- to 22-year olds, but because I was a ‘turnaround’ guy who specialized in helping troubled companies become solvent.” (p. 122)
That’s odd enough to send me digging. The good doctor, it turns out, is anything but an academic. The only scholarly footprint he’s left is his dissertation (which, to be fair, won a couple of prestigious awards).
That ‘turnaround guy’ reputation was built at Boston Consulting Group and among several evangelical organizations. He held a number of political posts during the second Bush administration. He was affiliated with UT Austin but I’m unsure what he ever did there. In short, he’s more Mitt than Dan.
By my lights he’s really a consultant, a type agency guys like me have a wary respect for. Mostly that’s because we’re often in competition for a client’s attention and cash. Consequently, both groups have staffs with highly developed persuasive abilities.
That’s what was so familiar about this book. Strip away the faux-folksiness and the nods to ‘important thinkers whose names you’ll recognize’ and this is a pitch.
Just what is the good doctor selling? Why the answer to our problems, of course, which he takes the time to describe and illustrate as he works up to his prescription. Here, in a nutshell, is the problem: we’re no longer a serious people. Our comforts and distractions have, he fears, come to define us, imperiling our ability to engage in the hard civic work required to maintain a republic.
It’s not as though I don’t have some sympathy for that perspective. It’s just that in the end I’m unsold despite the effort and, really, it’s quite an effort.
Tearing into John Dewey for the state of our public schools. Sharing a decades-long distrust of and fascination with Rousseau‘s Emile. Arguing for more time for dead Greek guys, Aristotle preferred if you love freedom as our author does. Stating, bald-facedly, that the First Amendment is “the beating heart of the American idea.” (p. 253)
Why am I not sold? Because in the end his vision, which he claims is optimistic, strikes me as bleak. We shouldn’t strive to be free from work, he avers, we should be free to work. We shouldn’t strive to enjoy the fruits of our labors, we should labor to be the most productive people we can be.
You can’t get a better distillation of Weber‘s Protestant ethic and that’s never been an animating idea for me.
I have other criticisms that risk sounding petty. To me they matter because I think we owe a craft or task, our work, the respect of doing it well. It verges on the hypocritical to lean on one’s scholarly credentials and so badly flub the driblets of advanced learning offered up.
For one, I’ve never seen Weber misread quite as quickly as I did on page 130, where Sasse declares Weber claims this ‘peculiar ethic’ is ‘what binds this whole nation together in a desire to be productive.’ There’s that work thing again.
There are numerous instances where he implores Muslims to bring their perspective to the American table. Unfortunately the tolerance for non-Western perspectives runs out with the oil. I saw nary a mention of any non-Biblical thinker from east of the Levant.
I also wonder how an historian made peace with the idea that cultural clocks can be made to run backward. It’s never happened before though people, being people, continue to make the same mistakes, reaffirming what Santyana taught us.
I believe in dialog and trying to understand why people who don’t agree with me believe as they do. But you have to meet me halfway in an honest conversation.
Because at the end of the day a bad pitch is a bad pitch and, inevitably, there’s no sale.
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