Ben Sasse, the junior Republican Senator from Nebraska, has begun his campaign for what we used to call the highest office in the land, and he has begun it with a lie. The lie is found in the opening paragraphs of his recently published book, “The Vanishing American Adult, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance,” and for your benefit I will reproduce the lie in its entirety:
Early in my tenure at Midland University, a group of students in the athletic department was tasked with setting up a twenty-foot Christmas tree in the lobby of our basketball arena. These were hearty and healthy kids, 18- and 19-year-olds. They got the tree up, took out some decorations, dressed the tree, and began to leave, concluding that the job was done. That was when one of the university’s vice presidents happened by and noticed something odd. The Christmas tree was decorated only on the bottom seven or eight feet, on the branches the kids could easily reach.
Why, she asked, was the work only half done?
The head of a sorority replied, “We couldn’t figure out how to get the ornaments on the top.”
“Was there not a ladder in the gym?” the vice president queried. “Was maintenance unwilling to bring one?”
She was met with shrugs. No one had bothered to look or thought to ask.
This day’s failure wasn’t at all about lacking brains; it was about will. It was about ownership. It was about not having much experience or interest in seeing tasks through to completion.
Every word in this story is a lie:
- what is “a group of students in the athletic department?” Were they just walking by the basketball arena when they were impressed with the duty of Christmas tree decoration?
- Midland University does offer a major in Athletic Training; is part of the coursework of Athletic Training majors to decorate Christmas trees unsupervised?
- Midland University, like all such institutions, does have a lot of vice presidents. So this story could have been referring to the “Vice President for Finance and Administration,” the “Vice President for Admissions and Enrollment,” the “Vice President of Development,” the “Vice President for Academic Affairs,” the “Vice President for Student Affairs,” or the “Vice President for Human Resources.” But not only does it not specify which vice president “happened by,” it also doesn’t explain what on earth the vice president was doing in the lobby of the basketball arena, or what her interest was in this supposed Christmas tree! I should note here that there is some evidence that a Christmas tree has been decorated on Midland’s campus at least once.
Everything about this foundational lie goes to the core of Ben Sasse’s ideological project. How did students become tasked with decorating a twenty-foot Christmas tree? Were they employees? Where was their supervisor? Who would be responsible if one of these hale and hearty young people fell from a twenty-foot ladder and was killed or disabled?
This lie is not the only problem, or the most important problem, with Ben Sasse’s book, but it’s important to keep in mind as the central conceit of it colors the rest of the text.
An abbreviated list of problems Ben Sasse has with kids these days
- They talk differently;
- They watch YouTube;
- They use social media;
- They rewatch The Office;
- They lack agency, initiative, and liveliness;
- They do not seem to enjoy having conversations with their parents;
- They seem tired, listless, and enervated;
- They have trouble sleeping when it is hot.
I am making fun of Ben Sasse, and will make fun of Ben Sasse a lot more before this review is over, but what I’m not doing is exaggerating. To understand what Ben Sasse is wrong about, you have to understand what Ben Sasse thinks is wrong, and the above is a list of the symptoms Ben Sasse has identified of the disease he believes today’s youth are suffering from.
To understand Ben Sasse you have to understand lifecycle effects
In perhaps the only moment of self-awareness in his entire 273-page book, Sasse writes on page 8, “How do we know the situation with our kids has really gotten worse; don’t all parents always worry about their teens?”
The answer, of course, is yes. I use the term “lifecyle effects” to refer to the ways in which predictable changes in the perspective of the observer over a lifetime influence his or her opinion about the conditions being observed.
To give a simple example, I find that temperatures in the summer are much less comfortable for me in my early 30’s than they were in my early teens. Someone ignorant of lifecycle effects would conclude that summers are hotter than they used to be, while someone who is conscious of lifecycle effects would wonder whether people in their 30’s are consistently less comfortable with summer heat than people in their teens. You should always rule out lifecycle effects before trying to find an explanation for something you think has changed since you were younger.
Sasse does not. Instead, his criticism of America’s youth is based entirely on his memories of how his own adolescence differed from the adolescence of today. Correcting this error is not as easy as it seems. Consider, for example, if Sasse’s father were alive today. You might think he could turn to his father and ask, “dad, I know due to my biases I can’t render a useful judgment, but you saw me grow up and you’re seeing my daughters grow up, so you can be objective: are kids today less self-reliant than I was when I was a kid?”
Now that you know about lifecycle effects, you know this can’t work. 45-year-old Ben would be asking 75-year-old Grandpa what 75-year-old Grandpa thought about 14-year-old Granddaughter Sasse compared to 45-year-old Ben. Since Ben has made a Senator of himself, nothing would be more natural than for Grandpa to judge that Ben had an ideal upbringing. Since Ben’s kids are homeschooled teenagers, Grandpa may have natural and inevitable concerns about their immaturity.
But lifecycle effects don’t end when you turn 45 — they continue until they end as all lifecycles do. No, to find out whether kids these days really are suffering in an unprecedented way from the maladies Ben Sasse has diagnosed, he would need to ask 45-year-old Grandpa Sasse what he thought about 14-year-old Ben. In other words, he would need to interrogate contemporaneous records to see whether the particular complaints 45-year-old Ben registers were made by other 45-year-olds about young people in previous times.
If they were, then Sasse would be forced to reckon with the fact that the basic conceit of his book is wrong: adolescents today do not suffer in an unusual or unprecedented way from the maladies he diagnoses them with.
What do contemporaneous records show about adults’ views of adolescents?
Here I have to confess: I love PSA’s. Public Service Announcements and other educational films of earlier eras are not historical records of America’s past (for one, they’re in black and white). What they are is a perfect crystallization of what some adults — writers, directors, and producers — thought would appeal to other adults — parents — when it came to the education and upbringing of their children.
Even more importantly, given the income and wealth disparities of race and class, such films are focused almost entirely on the precise population Ben Sasse is concerned with: the parents and children of white middle-class and upper-middle-class families.
So, what do the PSA’s of the past have to say about the concerns of parents of the past about the youth of the past?
The 1954 educational film “Habit Patterns” is a personal favorite of mine. The first time I saw it I was fairly sure it was about a girl unexpectedly beginning a menstrual cycle, but it’s actually quite a bit more interesting than that. In it, the villainess Barbara (unlike Ben Sasse’s daughter Helen across the street):
- sleeps in past her alarm clock;
- makes her mother shout up the staircase to get her out of bed;
- tells little lies;
- has no plan for her day at all;
- puts off mending the collar on her dresses;
- decides to cover the spots on her sweater with a scarf;
- wasn’t ready in time for her father to take her to school, disappointing him;
- didn’t have time to be picky about her food or think about her diet;
- didn’t have time for milk, to say “good morning,” or for manners;
- made a pretty picture with her rumpled skirt, her spotted sweater and her hair in a tizzy;
- was late for school.
These are not cherry-picked examples. I have transcribed the precise crimes alleged against young Barbara in 1954. They don’t just have a striking resemblance to the inadequacies and disappointments alleged by Ben Sasse, they are identical, all the way down to listlessness and enervation.
The rest of the book
Ben Sasse is running for President of the United States, and “The Vanishing American Adult” has a kind of genius about it: targeted at the voting-age parents of children under the age of 18 in order to make them feel as sympathetic as possible to Ben Sasse’s view of their children’s inadequacy. The children, naturally, don’t get a say in it.
To achieve the goal of being elected President, Ben Sasse’s actual prescriptions by necessity can’t be too specific, and so the rest of the book is filled with predictable banalities. Children should work, read, save, travel, and spend time with their elders. Also, they should love America.
This is Benjamin Spock with an American flag waving over it (there is, happily, an American flag on the book’s cover). You can, technically, take parenting advice from it, if you’re the kind of person who wants to lecture their toddler about the importance of resilience.
This is a bad book, and Ben Sasse is a bad man, but no review of it and him would be complete without a final quote of the most Bensassian passage in the entire text, in which he describes finding the perfect ranch for his daughter to learn the essentials of ranching:
We thought it would be a special formative experience for Corrie to spend time working on a ranch. The rancher would get some free labor and out daughter would build some character by an unrelenting encounter with daily necessity. Our poopotologist [ed: don’t ask] helped us find a rancher who was willing to take on a teenage girl for a month. For obvious reasons we didn’t want her to go to some remote cattle operation with a bunch of 20- and 21-year-old men working as hired hands. We were hoping for a family environment. We found just the place: a family-owned-and-operated ranch, where an earthy old rancher and his wife and three grown children and a new grandbaby lived and worked.
To call this pandering would be to give a bad name to the great panderers of history. If Ben Sasse thinks his political fortunes lie in the pool of late-middle-aged men who are concerned about their daughters spending time with virile, unmarried men, he has every right to hunt down their votes everywhere he can find them.
But the rest of us have the luxury of shaking our heads in disbelief at this pitiful shell of a man.