This summer, I led a book discussion group for the Harvard Christian Alumni Society on Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult. We thoroughly enjoyed the book and are hoping to run another book group in the future, perhaps in January. It was a nice change to read a book and be able to process it with others.
Below are the discussion questions I wrote up. We didn’t make it through all of them each week, but it was helpful to have some guide to our conversation.
- Ancient Roman law broke up youth into three stages: infantia, pueritia, and pubertas. Pubertas (ages 14-20) was the “launching point” for adulthood, and has been marked by various “rites of passage” across many cultures. Sasse contends that our coming-of-age rituals “have become more automatic, and less purposeful, than achievement-based rituals” (16). Do you agree with his assessment?
- Sasse argues that there are 5 post-WWII developments that affected the development of Baby Boomers and subsequent generations (material surplus, age-segregated environments, the disintegration of the family, institutionalized secondary schooling increasing peer culture, and the protest era causing polarization on moral issues). Which of these developments do you believe has played the largest role in changing how Americans become adults?
- Sasse suggests that there was a debate at the turn of the 20th century about what children should learn in school between the traditionalists (who viewed education’s purpose as moral instruction for the souls of students, with an eye toward character- and virtue-building) and pragmatists (who viewed education’s purpose as churning out workers with basic competencies for productive living in an industrial economy). What do you view as the purpose of education?
- Tocqueville said that Americans seem to need no adolescence at all, in contrast to the French in the 1800s (36). Last week, Alastair pointed out that Americans work more hours per week than most other countries. Is the trend toward a longer adolescence a matter of American decline or just returning to a more global norm?
- Do we agree with the 8 markers Sasse outlines for adulthood? Are these reasonable markers or should we consider other markers? (Sasse, for example, notes a difference in “intentional multigenerational living” vs the phenomenon of boomerang kids.)
- Sasse suggests mass schooling shaped the rise of toxic teen culture and consumerism thanks to teen marketing. If teen culture is part of the problem, can any school system really avoid prolonging adolescence?
- Overall Sasse suggests that there are a lot of cultural changes – from the “childish” adults due to the influence of TV to the poor civic education of American children. Do you buy these arguments or do you think we should find a more objective measurement to judge quality over time?
- Do you agree with Sasse’s distinction between formal schooling and “an education”?
- Do we agree that the current school system is heavily influenced by Dewey’s amoralism and view that public education is primarily in service of society? Is that so different from Sasse’s arguments for educating children as citizens (presumably in service of American society)?
- Former public school teacher Gatto argues that students leave schools with “a poor sense of time past and time to come” (72). A lack of appreciation for time seems to be behind much of the problems Sasse cites (high school emerging as a way of keeping “idle” teens busy during the Depression, the many years spent on video games, the extended adolescent period through the end of one’s 20s). How can we better value the time God has given us on this earth – both in our own lives and the lives of our families and communities?
- Sasse says that Sayers is his inspiration and explains that “there is almost something perverse about wanting to teach everyone to read but not to teach them to think clearly – leaving ‘them at the mercy of the printed word'” (79). One can look at some of today’s controversial issues and polarization and see how people are “at the mercy of the printed word,” especially on social media. Do we think this is a new phenomenon or rather a perennial problem?
- Sasse quotes Sayers again to say “the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain” (82). Do we agree that this is the end of education? This is a fairly secular definition. Would we, as Christians, modify this statement to include reference to our Creator?
- Sasse highlights the problem of generational segregation and suggests that we should do more to combat it by visiting our elders in retirement homes. Of course, retirement homes are a relatively new innovation; in prior generations, the elderly were more likely to live with their younger relatives. Do you think Sasse’s limited proposal (visiting them in a system that’s inherently segregated) makes sense or is our society due for a more thorough overhaul (discouraging the practice of having retirement homes and communities all together)?
- Sasse’s elders seem to be very respectable, life-giving, stoical, eye-opening people. What if you find that the older people in your life often give bad or wrong-headed advice? What if you are the stoic and they are the emotional ones?
- Sasse cites an example of his grandmother Elda jerry-rigging her baby’s bassinet onto the John Deere tractor as she attempted to farm her land while her husband was serving in WWII, which he praises as an example of ingenuity and “get-it-done” attitude (120). I’m pretty sure if a mother attempted this today, she would have CPS called and that baby taken away. Is our aversion to risk contributing to our failure to persist in the face of challenges?
- Sasse distinguishes between valuing freedom from something and freedom to do something, and suggests that the younger generation values the former but not the latter (124). When considering compliance with mask regulations during this pandemic, one wonders whether this is a problem only among younger Americans… How, as a society, can we encourage people to think more in freedom to categories?
- Sasse describes work as a “vocation” (136) – that is, “something God ‘calls’ you to do.” In the older Western tradition, a “vocation” was more understood to be a calling to the religious life. Do we consider any particular job something that God has called us to, or is our calling rather to do some form of work (with a good work ethic)?
- Sasse’s daughter Corrie was sent to work on a cattle ranch for one month, and some lawyers contacted Sasse after seeing his related tweets to inform him that they might have broken child labor laws. Sasse says that he’s not in favor of repealing child labor laws, but it does seem troublesome if the course he’s advocating is fundamentally incompatible with our current laws. Should we repeal or revise our child labor laws?
- Sasse praises the value of a work ethic and of good work done to the glory of God, of learning how to suffer in part through one’s labor. One of the differences that struck me between Sasse’s experience and my own is that his first jobs were much more physical. I didn’t really experience “suffering” from working behind an ice cream counter at my first job. Do you think the type of labor affects the work ethic and lessons we learn from work?
- Brooks and Murray suggest that it’s important to find work that “matters” to satisfy (rather than being fun or well-compensated) (153). In a world where consumption is the rule, how how do we find work that “matters”? Murray also suggests that it’s important to feel “personal responsibility for the outcome.” How do we best feel personally responsible in corporate environments where success is truly dependent on many contributors?
- When our wealth exceeds our basic needs and we venture into the realms of wants, how do we as Christians limit our consumption? What boundaries do we set for ourselves? Are there any boundaries that we think God has set for us?
- Do you agree with Sasse’s assessment that overconsumption is not essential to capitalism or do you agree with the marketing consultants that “our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life” (167)?
- Chapter Seven discusses the value of solo travel in particular as a means of “escape” – partly from one’s own parents. This contrasts quite strongly with his encouragement in the previous chapters of desegregating the generations. It seems that in both cases what motivates him is the desire to break oneself out of the “norms” one is used to – the norms of one’s peers and one’s geographical area. What value do you see in breaking out of norms and how does it contribute to our sense of adulthood?
- Sasse gives some suggestions for how to “travel” rather than just “tour” at the end of the chapter, but there are still some open questions in my mind as to what makes for the difference between these two things (besides hopping on a cruise ship where everything is preplanned – obviously that’s firmly in the tourism camp). What is the difference? Less scheduling? More time spent? An openness to serendipitous encounters?
- What books would you include on your 5 ft bookshelf? Are there any that you strongly agree with Sasse about? Any that would surprise us?
- How do you cope with the feeling of lacking the “buns of steel” (219) to complete some of the books considered classics? (e.g. those in Jefferson’s list or the Harvard Classics list)
Chapter 9 / Postscript
- Do you agree with Sasse that Americans are “made” through our collective ideals of governance (351)?
- One of Sasse’s central arguments for our “civic miseducation” is that students are largely ignorant of the basics of how our government functions and of the rights our Constitution protects. However all the research he cited is quite recent. Surely for much of American history, many Americans wouldn’t have been able to name all the rights protected by the first amendment. Do you think our current situation is unique or might this be a perpetual problem within our republic?
- Which view of American exceptionalism is more compelling to you – Obama’s implication that citizens of every nation will patriotically find their country exceptional or Sasse’s proposal that America was founded in an exceptionally unique way?
- Sasse concludes by explaining why this wasn’t a policy book. Do you agree with his approach?