Review - The Vanishing American Adult

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Reposted with permission from The Cripplegate.

by Eric Davis

I typically do not read books from contemporary politicians. Recently I made an exception when a friend who thinks intelligently about culture recommended that I read The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, by Ben Sasse. A few chapters in, it became obvious that Sasse is not a typical politician.

He has been serving as a US Senator from Nebraska since 2015. He holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford, St. John’s, and Yale. He has worked in consulting and was a university president by age 37. Sasse learned to work with his hands, having grown up farming. He is a Christian and has three kids. His conservative persuasion is not motivated by larger tax breaks, but by things like the first amendment, involuntarism, and decentralized decision-making. And, Sasse seems like the type of guy who you could chat with on anything from cars to Christ to culture while watch college football and eating a Coney Island dog.

For the most part, the book discusses how parenting and educational philosophies are the majority influencers on kids, and therefore, culture. Sasse laments the current scene of youth. And it’s more than a mere mocking of the 20-something adolescent vegging out on Call of Duty in his parent’s basement.

Even so, Sasse is upfront: we actually do have an unmatched, “coming-of-age crisis” on our hands. The unprecedented number of kids on things like antidepressants is not a good sign. Recent ADHD medication sales topping $13 billion is not encouraging. The average “tween” (8-12 year olds) glued to entertainment media about six hours per day is not the mark of an aspiring generation. Universities full of kids who crumble emotionally under opposing and challenging ideologies is not the mark of a responsible, courageous generation. Sixty-three percent of 18-30 year old males using pornography more than once a week is not a sign of maturity. We could go on. And, though there were some good things about the good ‘ole days, he goes farther than putting a chronological guilt trip on readers. The need for our youth goes deeper than having to walk to school uphill both ways in a snowstorm like granddad.

From the book, it’s clear that Sasse loves America but he doesn’t worship it. He values our government and constitution, but he does not impose a savior-expectation upon them. Regardless where one falls, I think readers will find the book refreshing as Sasse avoids a partisan blame-game when it comes to addressing cultural issues. He evades rallying a pitchfork-and-torch uprising against a particular political party. Nor does he portray himself as a political messiah with all the answers.

He takes a wiser approach by speaking frankly, humbly, and practically to everyday citizens. He just speaks to the everyday, street-level population. And that’s what I need as I attempt to navigate real cultural crises while trying to change some diapers, fix the car, and work a job.

The Education Situation

In large part, the issue comes down to parenting and education. It’s not only that, though it is at least that. He operates by the presupposition that humanity is born with a self-centered nature, thus needs to be steered in the opposite direction.

A few chapters are devoted to a look at education theory, though it is not only a book about education. We should not throw kids into more education. A broader goal is necessary; forming nascent human beings into wise, strong, and diversified people who contribute in a variety of ways to current society, while working to raise up the next.

Sasse argues that some Americans have placed too much hope in public education. We have placed expectations on it which it simply cannot produce. John Dewey, known as the prophet of progressive education, is largely responsible for some of those expectations. He elevated institutionalized public education to an absolute; a religion. Dewey said, “I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.” With that approach, schooling simply cannot deliver.

Sasse argues that institutionalized learning does not best develop our kids. The increasing institutionalization of teenage years has made many young Americans less like citizens and more like cogs in a machine. It’s no surprise that many are floundering. “National greatness will not be recovered via a mindless expansion of bureaucratized schooling.” He cites a twelve-year, Kansas City study in which a few billion additional dollars were thrown a the public school district. Despite the claim that this would solve the issue, no demonstrable benefit was observed.

It was only in the past century that schools began grouping students by age instead of learning ability. Sasse suggests that generational segregation of kids and teens may not be the best idea. Perhaps it’s the soil from which the youth culture sprouts. He observes that childhood and adolescence are decreasingly periods of moral development under parental authority and more a time of unchaperoned peers shaping the sensibility of those coming of age.

Sasse takes an approach to education that is more comprehensive. It’s not possible for one teacher and one passive classroom K through 12 to awaken and stimulate the need and hunger for education in a child. Kids could be more developed if exposed to a larger spectrum of trades and peoples in the community (again, less generational segregation). The problem is not simply that kids are under-motivated. It’s also that they are under-exposed to a diversity of trades. Adjusting this could increase motivation. Further, education ought not only involve teaching kids to know. In the development of knowledge, kids needs to know what they don’tknow. That helps till the rocky ground of youthful pride, teaching them that the world is way, way bigger than themselves.

Some parents are observing the problem with institutionalized education. The current home and classical school interest is an indicator. Homeschooling is the fastest growing segment comprising a diverse population of a few million students. The population has doubled in the past fourteen years and is about half as large as that of all private schools in the US.

Parental Involvement

But institutionalized education is not the sole culprit. Sasse proposes, “The schools are less to blame than we are, for we [parents] are the ones who have asked them to deliver more than any mass institution is competent to produce.” In part two of the book, he gives five character-building habits for parents to help kids get traction out of perpetual adolescence. “All five require building scar tissue on purpose; bodybuilding for the mind and soul.”

First, discover the stages of the human life and mortality. Understand birth, the developmental stages, and death. Resist being cut off from older generations and human frailty. Flee age segregation. Kids should not have to wait until a personal, introspective existential crisis before they are truthfully walked through their mortality. Suffering should be embraced.

Second, develop good work ethic. Even if it’s not your primary goal, learn manual labor. Work with your hands. Endeavor in jobs for more than a few minutes which require sweat and pain. Experience a spectrum of trades. Appreciate the innumerable skills out there. And, in the process, find one of your own.

Third, embrace limited consumption. Understand the difference between needs and wants. “Gluttony is a danger we have forgotten to guard against.”

Fourth, learn how to travel and travel light. Know what it’s like to subsist. Experience other, less prominent cultures. Literature is one key way to do so. More preferably is to go yourself. “The traveler finds the larger world, but also his or her own.”

Fifth, learn how to read and how to decide what to read. Books offer literary travel. You can visit ancient Athens and Jerusalem. But learn the difference between reading and reading well. Kids need both an appetite for reading and a list to get them into reading well. Choose books that will stretch their minds and spark curiosity.

Regarding these habits, Sasse writes, “Most of our teens do not need more therapy or more antidepressants. They need direction about how to acquire the habits essential for navigating adulthood and experiences that introduce and instill those habits.”


Probably most encouraging was that a politician wrote this book. I don’t think Senator Sasse would first identify himself as a politician. But perhaps that is what might make him a good one.

I would not look to this as my primary book on parenting. And Sasse doesn’t suggest that it should be. I wish that more Scripture was brought to bear on the parenting discussion, but, again, it is not intended to be a manual of biblical parenting.

He wants to discuss how to effectively raise a culture that does not expect privilege without proven responsibility, affluence without skillful labor, and respect without demonstrated integrity. For that, it’s a needed book for our times. I heartily recommend the book to parents and non-parents; to democrats and republicans, and anyone who wants to think intelligently and tangibly about raising a generation better than ours.

Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 15 years and mother of their 3 children.

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There are 8 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I have a question.  We began homeschooling in 1990.  Although our children have done well in the Lord, it seems like so many from our large homeschool group have not.  Many of them did do some hard manual work, were not spoiled, and were in involved in serving others. Does he acknowledge and address this issue at all?  


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Bert Perry's picture

One of the biggest things I've seen doing inestimable harm to kids is when their parents don't take care of their marriages.  Everybody thinks things are OK until it becomes very obvious that they're not, and often, the provocation--say a kid is seeing someone who is bad news--further distracts them from the real problem.  

Another issue I've seen a lot is when people are more concerned about the outward expressions of piety than the inner reality--I'd call it "rulesism" instead of "legalism" simply because nobody owns up to trusting in their own works for salvation, but a lot of people would call it the latter.  Whatever you call it, though, it's deadly, because it's relatively easy to obtain outward conformity while ignoring what's going on inside.  

Which is a short way of answering Ed, perhaps, but a longer way of saying that if Eric's characterizing Sasse correctly, then Sasse missed a big "prime directive" called the "Gospel."   

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Bert.  I think you are right about parents not taking care of their own marriages.  Or sometimes it is simply a life out balance, given to extreme something or another. Sometimes I wonder if the problem is more theological: non-elect children?   That's a sad thought.  It breaks my heart to see good parents take their parenting seriously, just to have their kids go the wrong way. 

 I haven't read the book you reviewed, but I have read a number of others back when we homeschooled our kids and even afterwards.  They seemed to say similar things. One thing is for sure: kids have a will of their own, and we can try to influence them, but we cannot program them.

Thanks, Bert, for all the cool stuff you share with us at SI.

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JNoël's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

One of the biggest things I've seen doing inestimable harm to kids is when their parents don't take care of their marriages.  Everybody thinks things are OK until it becomes very obvious that they're not, and often, the provocation--say a kid is seeing someone who is bad news--further distracts them from the real problem.  

Especially parents of two or more children of differing school levels (say, more than 2 grades apart), the need for a third party to be involved in the family becomes increasingly apparent. In my situation, family living close by has been of incalculable value to my marriage, as they have willingly sacrified much of their time for overnights for the kids to allow my wife and I time alone to not only maintain but also to continue to build our relationship. As always, priorities are critical, and while parenting and homeschooling can be all-consuming and are, indeed, critical, the marriage relationship must always be the higher priority.

Now if only I could consistenly succeed....


Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Aaron Blumer's picture


Sounds like a pretty impressive piece of work for U.S. Senator... as in, not quite the usual "what can I say to get more votes?" calculation. I think I'll pick up the audio book.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

Ed, keep in mind the review is by Eric Davis, not myself.  Hopefully I shall in due time contribute some reviews of similar value!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Ed, keep in mind the review is by Eric Davis, not myself.  Hopefully I shall in due time contribute some reviews of similar value!


Oops!  Thanks, Bert.

"The Midrash Detective"

pvawter's picture

I just finished the book a couple of weeks ago, and I highly recommend it. Sasse pleasantly surprised me by offering more than the usual political garbage. The gospel does not feature prominently, but it is not completely absent either. There is food for thought for all Americans in this book.

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