One of the few things liberal and conservative educators agree on these days is that college students are too fragile. Many of them are intellectually and emotionally unable to engage ideas uncongenial to them. Many are incapable of accepting honest assessments of their academic performance. They seem anxious to get through life successfully, pleasurably, and painlessly rather than seeing it as an adventure and possible source of unanticipated joys.
In his new book, The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse, historian, former university president, and current Republican Senator from Nebraska, goes beyond the usual complaints about young people. He blames our dominant educational approach. Often oriented toward self-esteem and other therapeutic goals, it contributes to the general lack of self-reliance that makes many young people unready for adult responsibility. There are better ways, and his interesting and useful volume abounds in robust but not especially surprising alternatives.
Parents with the fortitude and wherewithal to follow Sasse’s prescriptions for raising kids in all likelihood already believe in hard work, probably commend the virtues of physical labor, advocate moderate habits of consumption that distinguish luxuries from comforts and comforts from necessities, and seek broad learning and varied experiences for their children, including travel. Sasse’s audience is also likely to understand how important it is for children and adolescents to spend significant time with adults rather than remaining segregated in their peer group. And they know it’s a challenge to induce their children to shoulder duties when the other kids’ parents are more lenient.
The book begins with a story meant to evoke the problem with the rising generation. Sasse tells of a group of college athletes that was delegated to set up a twenty-foot Christmas tree. They wandered off after decorating only the bottom third of the tree. When asked why they abandoned the task, they only shrugged their shoulders.
One reviewer didn’t like the story. In the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky begins with an extensive meditation on the state of the Republican party and Sen. Sasse’s role in its future after Donald Trump. Eventually he gets to the book he is tasked with reviewing. The fact that he devotes more space to political handicapping than to Sasse’s educational proposals gives the impression he is expressing attitudes that are taken for granted in his circles, which makes them all the more interesting as sociology. Tomasky finds fault with the moral of the story about the students and the Christmas tree. He complains that one is not “hard-pressed to conjure explanations that fall well short of an alarming lack of national resolve. They might not have cared very much. They might have been anxious to get back to more pleasurable pursuits. And why weren’t they provided with all the needed supplies in the first place?”
These exculpations reinforce Sasse’s warnings about how we view maturity today. Being an adult means not inventing excuses for leaving commonplace work half-finished because it is not exciting enough or because it requires a modicum of resourcefulness like fetching a ladder. It means having a sense of obligation and the self-respect that takes satisfaction in doing the job. The decay of these everyday virtues may not immediately endanger the republic or undermine its prosperity, but it does impoverish the life of its citizens.
Tomasky also attacks Sasse on empirical grounds. In the most enlightened parts of America, children are not coddled, as Sasse alleges. “The opposite problem is also pervasive,” Tomasky says with a degree of proprietary satisfaction. “In some counties—counties Hillary Clinton is likely to have carried last fall . . . a more prevalent concern is not that children are underachieving but that they are overachieving to the point of needing medication to manage their anxieties.”
Is this how we conceive adulthood? An overscheduled life and 24/7 résumé building may look like adulthood on steroids, but it isn’t. As Sasse stresses repeatedly, all the frantic rushing from one supervised semi-compulsory activity to another, as if this were the goal of life and the definition of maturity, is part of what’s wrong.
Few phenomena are as new as they appear to be. Almost 180 years ago, Kierkegaard expressed his own laments about the ethical education of children. Judge William, the pseudonym used in the second volume of Either/Or, recalls his own childhood twenty or more years before. He views it as a bygone age of high standards and seriousness. The most important aspect of that era of childrearing, he tells us, rested in being taught the crucial distinction between being busy with many duties and understanding the meaning of duty.
This sort of education is not provided merely by piling on chores. One can compel a young person to obey various commands. But one cannot compel an interior affirmation of duty, which turns on the recognition that duty itself is attractive and compelling for its own sake. A more indirect method must be used. Of his father’s involvement in his schooling, Judge William writes, perhaps with a trace of hyperbole:
I was exempted from all parental twaddle. He never asked me about my lessons, never heard me recite them, never looked at my exercise book, never reminded me that now it was time to read, now time to leave off, never came to the aid of the pupil’s conscience, as one sees often enough when noble-minded fathers chuck their children under the chin and say “You had better be doing your work.” . . . That nevertheless he was deeply concerned about what I was doing I am perfectly certain, but he never let me observe it, in order that my soul be matured by responsibility.
Now comes the main point:
I had not many duties—and how many children are spoiled by being overwhelmed by a regular ceremonial of duties! So I got a thoroughly deep impression of the fact that there was something called duty and that it had eternal validity.
Sasse makes no secret of his Christian commitment. In The Vanishing American Adult, this comes out primarily in his advocacy of an Augustinian view of human nature: Children do not become ethical adults without vigorous training. Sasse contrasts this view with the dominant philosophy of education traced (perhaps a bit too simplistically) to John Dewey.
This is right. But to my mind it is equally or more urgent to bring home the insight of Judge William. Young people need more than tasks, projects, and assignments. They need to see that duty has “eternal validity.”
Children may not understand all this naturally. Duties are onerous, at least part of the time. Yet children can be taught, or rather brought to understand, that doing a task well and taking responsibility for it begets joy, even happiness, as some of Sasse’s illustrations show. We can teach, by precept and example, that this is the foundation for adulthood.
The relation of this moral sense to religion is complex. In Kierkegaard’s writings, Judge William belongs to the ethical stage rather than the religious. But the ethical orientation is open to the religious. In Kierkegaard, the road from ethical responsibility to religion characteristically runs through guilt and repentance. There is a great deal of truth in this. But there is an affirmative side as well. Learning to take joy in God’s commandments, participating in acts of kindness, in prayer and thanksgiving, and in religious study, prepare young hearts to savor the “eternal validity” of duty’s adult demands. Those of us who know this indeed have something to be thankful for.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.