Vanishing Adulthood and the American Moment: A Conversation with Senator Ben Sasse

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ben Sasse is the Junior United States Senator from Nebraska. Before being elected to the Senate in 2014, he taught history at the University of Texas, served as an assistant secretary in the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and was President of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. He holds a doctorate in history from Yale University; his doctoral dissertation won the Theron Rockwell Field Prize for best dissertation and the George Washington Eggleston Historical Prize. He is also a graduate of St. John’s College and Harvard College. He has been executive director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. During that tenure, he co-edited a book with the late James Montgomery Boice entitled, Here We Stand!: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals. His latest book is one of the most interesting, I think, to have ever been written by a sitting United States Senator. The title? Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Senator Sasse, welcome to Thinking in Public.


MOHLER: Senator Sasse, this is a very unusual book, an especially unusual book to be written by a member of the United States Senate. You tell the story of why you came to write the book. Is this the book you intended to write?

SASSE: Intended? Yes, since 2012 or ‘13 when I first started chewing on it, but before that, no intentions whatsoever. I became President of Midland University, a Lutheran liberal arts college outside of Omaha, in 2009 because of a financial crisis they were having and I have a lot of background helping turn around institutions that are failing or flailing—both for-profit and not-for-profit—and there was nothing about why they were seeking me out to help lead this university that had anything to do with student culture. And then I found in the first weeks and months on the new job in my calling that what really was keeping me up at night more than anything else was student culture, so from then on I intended to write this.

MOHLER: You talk about a specific incident that has to do with a Christmas tree, as I recall, that kind of awakened you to a difference in terms of young people in just a matter of, say, one generation to the next. Something has happened in terms of American society and the way we do or do not create young adults.

SASSE: Right. So I want to be clear. This book is not an old man screaming, “Get off my lawn!” It’s actually a constructive project. Two-thirds of it is, what can we do to better help transition our kids from childhood to adulthood, but the one-third of it that is stage-setting, I spend a lot of time on economic history, sociology, and cultural data about what’s actually happening to students in their adolescent period. But I wanted to take a couple of minutes to crystalize what this actually felt like, so one of the experiences that you referred to—the Christmas tree event—that really kind of startled me was that we have a big athletic arena at this college that I used to lead, and some of our best students are those who get hired by the development office (or advancement/fundraising office) or the athletic department. Students from both of those offices had been tasked one year, late-November, with setting up a Christmas tree in the lobby to the athletic arena, and it was about a twenty-foot tall Christmas tree, and they were given all the decorations and supplies to decorate it. They spent all the decorations and all the ornaments in the bottom eight feet of this twenty-foot tree and then were walking off. And one of the vice presidents of the university happened by and she said, “Hey, what are you guys doing? The work isn’t done.” And they said, “Well, we’re out of decorations.” And she said, “But you only decorated the bottom half of the tree.” And they said, “Yeah, we didn’t know how to get any higher.” And she said, “Oh, so university maintenance refused to bring you a ladder?” and she went throughout this series of questions, and it hadn’t occurred to her that none of them had really thought to ask themselves the fundamental question: What will this task look like when it’s done? So they just did the things that were immediately in front of them and then the ornaments were gone and they thought they were done. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this one moment, except that when this vice president for development was sort interrogating them, there was just such a passivity about the way they approached the problem that something clicked in me that this was a very different experience of being 18 or 19 or 20 or 21 than I had known. I was only 37 when I became president of this college, so I didn’t think of myself as that different—I mean basically a generation older, but I didn’t have kids that were close to college age at that point. My kids were little kids. So I didn’t think of myself as that far removed from these students. Yet one of the most basic, obvious differences was when I went off to college in 1990, everybody I graduated with, whether they were going to college or not, and everybody I got to college with, whether they came from a lower-middle class family or a wealthy family anywhere in the country, pretty much everyone had done some sort of work, and the vast majority of the students coming into our college—and again, this wasn’t a rich school—the vast majority of the students coming into our college in 2009 or ‘10 had never really done any work before and that struck me as worth pausing to reflect about.

MOHLER: Well I appreciate the anecdote. For one thing, I’m a college and seminary president, so I understand what’s going on there. I want to affirm the fact that your book is not a screed. It’s not an angry old man yelling, “Get off my lawn!” nor is it, rightly understood, even really addressed to young people. It’s addressed to the nation. But what you do have in that is sort of the sweetness of the reality. As you said, these were hearty and healthy young university students, and they’re the very ones that were chosen because of their promise. And as the public face of the university, and this is a story about them. You’re not castigating them. You’re saying, “What does this tell us?” There’s a barometer here, pointing to something. And then the bigger section of the book is addressed not even just to the parents of young people but to an entire society. This is something that has happened and is happening to us as Americans. That made me appreciate the book even more than what was implied in the title.

SASSE: Well, thanks. The audience definitely is all of us, because fundamentally, we’re discovering we’re drifting into this new category of perpetual adolescence, which no one has chosen. This wasn’t a self-conscious, deliberative act to say, “Hey, let’s have adolescence not have any endpoint.” It’s just something we’ve drifted into, and we have to understand that and how we got here and then ask, “Do we really want this?” And I do not think anyone wants this. Adolescence is a special thing; it is worth celebrating. It is a concept about two millennia old, that you have this kind of greenhouse stage between hitting biological adulthood, and yet we don’t assume that just because someone hits puberty they need to be a fully financially or emotionally or education— school-leaving in terms of household structure—independent adult. Adolescence is a pretty special thing as long as it is a means to an end, it is a transitional stage, definitely not to be the destination, and that’s what we are drifting toward.

MOHLER: Absolutely, and as a matter of fact adolescence is an achievement of sorts; it is noteworthy that, historically, adolescence emerged from a society that was complex, pretty stable, and increasingly wealthy, such that the society can give its efforts towards helping young people to emerge into adulthood. It is that that emerging is not happening now.

SASSE: Right. Really well said. It is, sort of, when there was a little more wealth and a little more security, civilizations and cultures have tended to say: “Hey, wow, we can invest in our teens”—now adolescence is becoming a teen and twenty some categories, it used to be late single digits and late teens, right before puberty and a couple of years after—“let’s invest in this period of transition and emergence for them.” But now what is happening is that the wealth and the freedom from violence and freedom from immediate, abject poverty that enabled adolescence to come into being, we seem to be so wealthy that we’ve lost what the sense of the purpose of this investment was, and it becomes, as you say, kind of an achievement toward destination. Well, Peter Pan was a dystopian hell. Disney tried to make it a time to be celebrated, but the idea of being stuck in Neverland and being bodily an adult and yet morally so impoverished that we can’t positively reflect on a history and future, that’s not what anyone should want.

MOHLER: No, as a matter of fact, the actual text of Peter Pan was something you would not want to be read to your children.

SASSE: Exactly. I mean, in the end of it, in the real, very write-up of it, Peter Pan is asked about all the people that he has killed, and he doesn’t remember it, he has no moral memory.

MOHLER: That’s right.

SASSE: He is in the body of an adult who can commit serious acts, and he does not have the mind and the spirit and deliberate capacities to reflect on that.

MOHLER: You went to ancient Roman law earlier on in your book, that is Roman culture, talking about the three stages from the process to childhood to adulthood, and that was really interesting. But you know what I thought of when I read that was something very close to you there in Washington D.C., and that’s the Shakespearian stained glass window there in the Folger Shakespeare Library showing the seven ages of man. And until recently, all of those seven ages of man, drawing of course from the famous soliloquy, “And as you like it,” that really was the expectation for human beings—of course, in this case, male human beings—as indicative. But in a way, you can’t even relate that stain glass window, the seven ages of man in Shakespeare, to the experience of so many young men in America today.

SASSE: Yes, that’s really well said. There have been intergenerational relationships and a reflection on wisdom to think about different stages of life in most places where people had the freedom to be, again, free from war and abject poverty. They could sit back and say, what is life like? There are a lot of ways to do this that are painful; Ecclesiastes has ways that are both painful and laced with hope, but Neil Postman has that great insight, I mean, thirty years ago, that increasingly we were creating a world that only had three stages, and he said it was because television and digital imagery and digital media adultified children and infantilized adults.   

MOHLER: Absolutely.

SASSE: Basically the big transition from being a child to being someone that was a full knowledgeable consumer, not necessarily wise, but a full knowledgeable consumer of American adult life was essentially a distinction about whether or not you can manage bowels. And then he said late in life, when you become demented and debilitated, that again you can’t manage your bowels. And, he said, most of life was this dependent, really baby state, and this very old state, infirm state, and we just let everything in the middle wash together. And deliberate culture and thoughtful people don’t do that. They recognize that there are lots of moments in life. One of our kids right now happens to be reading C.S Lewis’ Four Loves, and there are all sorts of moments in life that you transition through, and thoughtful communities want to love their kids enough so that they give some insights about what is coming next and what will be expected of them.

MOHLER: Absolutely. You write about why, and I want to get some bigger concepts behind the fundamental issues, continuing the argument that is in the title of your book in terms of the failure of our society to produce adequate young adults, young adults ready to the challenges, ready to adulthood. You mentioned several reasons why, you indict certain specific reasons why we are failing. I want to give you the opportunity to lay those out.

SASSE: Sure, because the way I try to frame that is getting to the two thirds that is constructive. There are a couple of different places where I try to briefly run through some of the causes. And so, Dr. Mohler, help me to pull back to the ones you must want to focus on. I think the few of the key ones are: we have a broad affluenza going on, which is usually the relationship between production and consumption or even between work and leisure or the old puritan way, sort of redeeming the work was to talk explicitly about recreation as opposed to just leisure, because leisure might sound as an end in itself and recreation is to be re-created so that we can get back to work of living a life of gratitude to God and loving our neighbor by serving. There are all sorts of great things that happen at that line right around leisure and recreation, but the purpose is to revivify, is to go out and serve and work again, and live a life of gratitude. Usually, production produces some economic surplus that can then be invested in recreation or leisure. And across an individual, or even maybe a sub-period of someone’s life, in an individual, that makes perfect sense. But we have become generationally or even societally so rich we’re the richest people at the richest time and place in human history such that a lot of the surplus that’s been produced by the generations before us has led to an ability for our kids to be insulated from work. And thoughtful, wise parenting doesn’t want to free our kids from work, we want to free them to find meaning in work and in service. By work here I mean in the older Latin and then reformational sense of vocation and work in terms of callings and duties before God. So parenting is work; our work in ministry, if you are professionally called to it, or the ways that we volunteer and serve in our local congregations, etc. There are lots of categories of work that are not just economically compensated, but our kids are really growing up in a way where first, because of cultural assumptions about wealth they’re insulated from work, and then secondarily because technology has so changed the work environment that most of our kids are physically, spatially, geographically segregated from work, so they don’t really grow up around it; and therefore, what’s happened is that we’ve generationally segregated and spatially—in terms of time—segregated our kids mostly in terms of schooling such that they tend to think of school not as a tool, which is the thoughtful way to think about it, school’s an important gift as long as it is also a means to the broader end of education and understanding of God’s diverse creation and preparation for service. But school is not the end in itself. Progression through years and grades in school is just a means; it’s not the end. And yet, we’ve grown from a time where kind of an agrarian to industrial transition in 1870 to 1900-1920 America, you went from most people not having much school to almost everybody having a mass school experience—not only mass elementary but also a mass secondary schooling—which became a normative experience in American life by World War II. And now, what we’ve tended to do is institutionalize more and more of childhood so that kids don’t have (and I’ll pull up here), they don’t really tend to have an instinctive, in-the-belly feeling of the difference between production and consumption. They just have school and progression of years and time through school, as if that’s kind of their work, and the rest of their life is just different kinds of consumption, and they end up in a way where it’s hard to tell the difference between producing something and consuming something and when you’re consuming (which is most of their experience) it’s hard to know the difference between needs and wants.

MOHLER: You know, these days Senator, so many pay attention (and rightfully so, at least thinking people) to the economic category of social capital, but it tends to be individualized. Individuals building, losing, spending, earning social capital, but the early idea of social capital was that society requires the common building of social capital. Contributing, and you mentioned a parent in the home, and volunteers in the community. They’re building social capital. They’re contributing to the society, building its capital base. That’s what’s not happening, and the distinction you make in terms of what you call the affluenza—others have identified the same—this culture of consumption only works if the social capital exceeds the consumption.

SASSE: Right. So well-said. There’s an economic-historical point to be made here about how social capital…there was some broad panic in America as agrarian culture declined and more technology substituted for labor and those migrations to the cities, and there was some worry about whether social capital would be reproduced in cities. But there’s also just an observational point that’s worth teasing out. My wife and I, because I’ve done lots of strategy consulting in crisis management over the last two decades, we’ve lived in a lot of states. We live back in my hometown now, in Nebraska, a farm town about an hour outside of Omaha. We’ve lived there for the last eight years, but before that we had popped through lots of different communities and so we’ve seen lots of different public schools, lots of different Lutheran elementary schools, lots of different Classical Christian schools, and homeschool and Christian co-ops partly because we’ve been a part of a number of these different communities and institutions, but also just because we’ve lived a lot of places and when we’re there, we’re curious about what’s happening with education and Christian education. And it’s amazing to see the difference between schools that have been around a little while and figured out how important culture is at their school versus those who have just gotten started and think that all they have to do is get it right in terms of having the right curriculum in place and then everything will work. So much more of what happens is the sea of assumptions that kids are raised around about what the good, the true, and the beautiful are and what you want your appetites and your heart and your loves to start inclining towards. Clearly, that’s what a lot of neighborhood and neighborliness and common grace are about; it’s about whether or not there are those shared assumptions, and I think we’re going through a very interesting, opportunity-filled ultimately but, frankly, scary time in American life where we’re going through so many transitions so rapidly that there’s a hollowing out of local community and mediating institutions. I think there’s sort of a mass epidemic of loneliness in America right now, but people don’t have the right categories and hooks for how to think about the problems we face at this time.

MOHLER: I appreciate you getting to so many of these issues. Both as an author and as a reader, I look for particular sections in the book, and at least by my reading I come to the conclusion that the author wrote the rest of the book for this. There’s more than one place like that in your book, especially in the last two thirds. But in the first third of the book where you diagnose the problem, I think it’s early on when you talk in the chapter titled “Little Citizens to Baby Einsteins”, you enumerate some of these reasons, you suggest some of the reasons are more medication, more screen time, more pornography, more time lived under mom’s roof, less marriage, less religious, participation—little citizens no more, and the fact that many of these young people are more intellectually fragile—also, softer parenting. None of these are by accident, and none stand alone. But I appreciate that you dared to catalogue some of these issues and identify them straightforwardly.

SASSE: Yes. When I set out to write this book I was very mindful of the fact that—and you are right I did it to get to the second two-thirds, which is the constructive part and the ‘what can we do?’—some might see that as a grumpy screed that’s just about generational transitions and people will always think that the young have lost their morals if only they could be like we were. Very self-consciously, and right away, I recognized that. When I first came back to take over Midland, I was mid 30’s when we moved back to Nebraska and 37 when I took over the college, in God’s providence one of the ironies was there was a guy on the board at Midland where I am helping to lead a crisis turnaround who was a an old doctor in the town who I’d remembered for years when I’d been away at college and traveling the country, I remembered this guy when I was in high school and I’d drive too fast through his neighborhood to pick up some gal who lived down the street from him to take her out on a date. This guy stood in the middle of the street a couple of times and shook his fist at me and said, “Slow down! You’re going to kill some kid in the street!” And I felt guilty about it as I matured. He was right and I was wrong. He probably did have an effect of slowing me down. I got back to Midland and this guy was one of my bosses because he was on the board of the college. So, I went over to him and took him aside for a conversation and wanted to thank him for, even angrily intervening in my life and frankly possibly protecting me and from harming someone else in the neighborhood. That’s just generational transition—sort of, insufficiently formed frontal lobe on the 17-year old male in a car that can drive fast. That’s going to change between 17 and 37. That’s biology. This, however, is about something different, which is: societally, our kids are actually demonstrably becoming more sedentary and passive. They are taking less initiative in their teens and twenty-somethings. Clearly, part of the story is this digital distraction. There is more and more tendency to think that going to the top of the mountain on Instagram because your friend went there and you looked at a picture is a substitute for actually going to the top of a mountain. That’s not true. And we need to have that conversation in a broad way. So, that’s why I catalogued some of it.


MOHLER: It says something about the tenure of the times that whenever we are engaged in a substantial conversation about our nation, the accusations often come that it is essentially negative. I think that goes back to a fundamental reality of fallen human existence. If we are going to talk about human reality, we are going to have to talk about some problems. Indeed, if we are going to get to the solutions to those problems, to constructive responses, we must be honest about what the problem is. That is part of the gift in this book by Senator Ben Sasse. His main ambition is not to spend most of his time diagnosing the problem, but he does instinctively know that if he does not define and describe the problem well, then his solutions will seem to hang in mid air; but they profoundly do not.


MOHLER: I want to get to the big ideas in your book. And by the way, the first thing I want to say is how thankful I am for a United States Senator who traffics in very big ideas. That’s not always the case. It’s not always rewarded within our political structure. When I read your book, I thought it was a bit like what would happen if Daniel Patrick Moynihan were to look at some of the same realities of today, someone of a different party, politically liberal, a seminal Democratic figure of the 20th century, who also played a role in the Nixon administration. He was an intellectually honest man, especially looking at the 1960’s and 70’s. I say this as a word of tribute to you; I think you are a very honest man daring to look at reality here in the 21st century.

SASSE: Thank you for those kind words. As you might know, I sit in his desk on the same floor, very self-consciously. So I’m the third or fourth most conservative member of the Senate by voting records, and Moynihan was a very liberal New York Democrat, but he’s the author of that old quote when he said, “Everyone is entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And he was well aware that the First Amendment, freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, protest, is always going to be fragile. There’s always a majoritarian instinct in the world to reduce things to short term, manichean, “if we have the power let’s squash everybody who differs with us.” And he was always very mindful of the challenges of the family structure in the 1960’s and 70’s. The things he said then feel prophetic now, even in every race in our 320 million person nation. I’m a big Moynihan fan, so thank you for the kind words.

MOHLER: In the same light, so am I. I’m also a fan of that era in which you would have really substantial political debates with people like Moynihan and William Buckley Jr. They were done in the context of mutual respect, and the political stakes were very high. But they had a mutual respect for reality, and the big question was not ‘what is the problem?’ but the big debate was ‘what do we do about it?’

SASSE: Hear, hear! Our forefathers believed that people are going to differ about important things; it’s a fallen world. One of the most basic presuppositions that undergirds politics that might work—in a macro sense of politics and the history of the world in marshaling power—if you understand that the world is broken and that people want to take your life, liberty, and your stuff, you are going to come to politics with saner assumptions than utopians who think that if only the right person could be in power then we could fix everything and bring a heaven on earth. That’s fundamentally untrue. The American system and the division and separation of powers—checks and balances not only across legislative, executive, judicial functions, but frankly the 9th and 10th amendments that self consciously wanted to distinguish between what those in Washington could potentially tackle and of that other subset of all things and topics that exists of which the government can address, still most of them are state and local—if you have those assumptions about American life when you begin to debate, then we can have lots of reasonable and respectful conversation about the level of federal intervention, say, in the modern economy. I’m a conservative, a small government guy. But I’m a limited government guy prior to being a small government guy. I want to respect other people who are medium-level government interventionists, but they also still believe in limited government, because that is about the relationship between the soul and about belief, about conscience, and the powers of the state.

MOHLER: I have only one real regret about your book, and it is that I think the title, though it fits the entire book, it fits the first third most urgently. Your book entitled The Vanishing American Adult. I think it’s about such big ideas that it is about the vanishing of America by the end. It is a book about big ideas. I appreciate the economical, sociological, political, historical analysis, your academic background, and I can see that in the book. What I hope many people will gain by reading your book is an understanding that ideas really do matter. As Russell Kirk famously said, “Ideas have consequences.” You track those consequences throughout several chapters of your book.

SASSE: Hear, hear! We have to be talking more about the ideas that both unite us as a nation—or used to and need to again—and the ideas that, frankly, are corrupting our discourse right now. I mean, 41% of Americans under age 35 now tell pollsters they think the First amendment is dangerous because you might use freedom of speech to say something that would hurt someone else’s feelings. That’s actually the whole point of America. America is about each of us protecting each other’s right to be wrong. We want to argue about heaven and hell and we want to do it free from violence, and that acknowledges the dignity and personhood of the person with whom we’re arguing. There are all sorts of places that I need to be persuaded I am wrong. And where I’m not wrong I need to get better at refining my argument and need to get better at persuading my neighbor. All of this presupposes an environment protected from violence, actual physical violence. So now we can wrestle with ideas. And when Americans start to believe that encountering an idea that you didn’t already know is itself a form of violence, then we are in a civilizational decline that is hard to pull out of and we are going to have to find some common ground to go back to the cultural pluralism that America is meant to protect. Only then can you get to the dinner table and the front door of the church and the town square, and wrestle about the stuff that really matters.

MOHLER: I think if we could put together in a room Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, then fast-forward to Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, I think that all would absolutely agree upon and insist upon the point made in your book. It is that America is a creedal nation. I think if you put all those men in the room, all disparate and diverse as they were, they would be very close in articulating that creed. What has happened to America as a creedal nation? What did they mean, and what do you mean by that?

SASSE: It is such a great line and phrase. Reagan’s way of saying was, “You’re always only one generation away from the extinction of freedom in any republic.” If you don’t pass on what you are about or what your shared narrative is, what our basic presuppositions are as a nation, then it will just evolve into a future battle and everybody will be trying to get more out of each other and of the essential state. Everything will become a zero-sum game. Margaret Thatcher, upon visiting the U.S. late in her prime ministership, talked about how Europe is a continent formed by history, but America is the only nation ever formed by philosophy, that is the fundamental sense that there is a common idea. And the American idea is that God gives us rights. Our 320 million citizens have rights by nature and the government is not the author or source of those rights. God gives us rights and government is our shared tool to secure those rights. That’s what American exceptionalism is. It is an understanding that there was a historically unique thing that happened in Philadelphia, 1787. It’s not a claim that Americans are better than other people. It’s not an ethnic claim. It is a recognition that, historically, no nation had ever really in a broad, declarative affirmation that everybody is created with dignity with inalienable rights. Now government has to come together and its project is to secure those rights. But it can never drift towards a statist’s claim that it’s the author of those rights. American exceptionalism is a term that’s fallen into disrepute, partly because people have wrongly reduced it to a term used about American foreign policy and levels of intervention. I think that the distinction we do well to clarify is that the American founding is a truth claim of all 7 billion people on the earth. We believe everyone is created with dignity. Now, that is a different thing than what the U.S. should do about it because our powers are specifically about our 320 million. But the larger philosophical claim is about everybody. That idea needs to be trumpeted loudly.

MOHLER: When I think about that point made by Lady Thatcher, I think of the distinction between reading the text of the Magna Carta and then shifting to the U.S. Constitution and the Preamble. Those are not the same kind of documents. One is an agreement, another is an absolute worldview, a truth claim, that led to an entirely new kind of government and a “new city”.

SASSE: Very well said. People who are not even coming at the question from a historical, political, or theoretical point can still recognize what a gift America has been. I think about my dinner with Bono last year. It ended up being me and him, David Petraeus, and Bill Gates. Petraeus was sitting there, and Bono basically admitted that, “Hey I’m a pacifist, I don’t think I like soldiers or warriors. And yet, I’ve been interested in a whole bunch of poverty issues and spend a lot of time in Africa. And over time as I come to these new countries and I find lots of American military presence, I find generals there and think, ‘Holy smokes is this a great thing!’” He said emotionally that every time he came to a country that had a lot of American military helping advise whatever country and upgrade its military, many advisors coming from U.S. military folk, he said, “I always felt comforted because I knew the security environment would be stable enough that then we could deal with the poverty issues I cared about.” Intuitively, he just said and blurted out—I don’t think he was trying to use it as a planned stump speech line at a dinner—that the thing about America is that you people believe in an idea about who your nation is. He said, “I love Ireland, we are the most beautiful place anywhere, and these are my people and Ireland is incredible, but no one would say that Ireland is an idea. America is an idea.”

MOHLER: In your book, you deal with not only ideas, but the sources of those ideas. I want to mention one in particular because I think you mentioned something that is almost universally unknown, ignored, or even where known, denied. And that is that the revolution that landed in the early decades of the 20th century in this civilization through people such as John Dewey. And you mention behind all of that is the metaphysical club, the rise of pragmatism as a test of truth, but in particular a progressivist understanding not only in the schools—I think a lot of people know Dewey in terms of the schools—but to the larger culture which came down to denying that there are any fixed truths, that there are any natural truths, and denying the very truth claims made in the Declaration of Independence, instead making everything just a matter of pragmatic evaluation, and often with  the American founding, ideals found wanting. I appreciate the fact that you give attention to Dewey and others, because without them we can’t possibly understand where we are today.

SASSE: Yes, I think those of us who are trained in intellectual history and who take theology and ideas seriously, we know that it’s important to wrestle with ideas. We also sometimes overstate the particular correlation and connect the dots between certain ideas and what happens within a certain time and place without having the institutional bridge to say those ideas really drove that specific outcome. Dewey is one of those guys whose influence I think is so big and broad that he’s completely understudied and under-understood in America. This book is not trying to do blame lay, but if there is blame to be laid, he is the great nemesis in my project here because I think Dewey was truly an enemy of the family. He believed a whole bunch of pragmatic things about what is ultimately worth valuing because he didn’t believe in objective truth hardly anywhere. He was also an institution builder. Dewey did so many diverse things in his life, but I think the most significant thing he did was he founded the modern American secondary school. He was responsible for its mass spread. And I want to be clear that I think the spread of mass secondary education in America is a net good, but it’s not an unmitigated good. It’s a net good, but we need to unpack what was good about it and what was not. And clearly as the economy shifted from mostly agrarian jobs to mostly urbanized, industrial, I call them “big-tool” economy jobs, there was a virtue to protecting kids from exploitation in these factories. But then there was a need to figure out how to occupy kids’ time. So a lot of becoming 14 to 16 to 17 or 18 years old didn’t used to be sedentary, inside, sort of passive learning. And over time that became what American secondary education’s institutional form was. Again, I want to distinguish between public funding and, sort of, monopoly-style administration of these schools. But I’m not an opponent of public funding of education. I think there are all sorts of positive externalities about of this kind of educational investment. But do we want a form of school that essentially made kids more passive and in particular made them less likely to believe their parents and other authority figures from the family should be trusted. And he wanted the school to become the center of the physical and moral universe of children. And I think that’s a big problem.

MOHLER: Well yes, and I wish without the constraints of time we could talk about that more. But the reality is Dewey wasn’t exactly hiding, I mean he was writing in public, the fact that he wanted the schools to separate the children from what he called the accumulated prejudices of their parents and to make that break with that authority. But when I look at the totality of your work here, I want to move on just very quickly to a couple of other things. I think the strongest two arguments you make practically about the recovery of work, and we’ve spoken about that a bit, the dignity of work, and finding value and satisfaction in contributing rather than merely consuming, but I think one of the most unexpected parts of your book—by the way, your own biography in terms of your work as a young person, that’s very helpful. I found a similar approach helpful with a student the other day when I pointed out that I was a bag boy in a grocery store and a janitor at one point in my life, which I think was just shocking to him. I thought, you know, I didn’t start here. But just in terms of your book, you make a distinction—and by the way, you mention another one of my favorites, which is Daniel Boorstein; I started reading his work when I was 19, he made such a difference in my understanding of America. But you talk about travel and the distinction between being a tourist and being a traveler, which you track back to Boorstein’s definitions. I think you’re really on to something there.

SASSE: Well thanks. I knew that in my life experience people who traveled a lot, and  this is not rich European, the grand traveler, aristocrat of the 17th or 18th century, this is really just the ability to see a different way of organizing and ordering life, the natural versus the built environment, or the neighborhood or the city you’re from versus some place 10 miles away. I noticed when i was in my mid-twenties that two questions were almost always interesting to ask over dinner with people that you’d already become intrigued by, people you’d work with or were creative or that were just curious, always had something interesting to say, a quick take on some new book that was out—two things were true of most of them. One was they could tell you the story of where their work ethic emerged. They knew the first time that they had worked hard. That’s the first part about what you talked about. The second is almost all of them had traveled some. And I think of the old, sometimes overused story about how a fish can’t tell you what water’s like because he’s never been out of water. But the reality is there are many, many things in life that until you have a point of contrast, you don’t have any ability to see the place from which you came. One of the most basic reasons to learn a second language—obviously people in the ministry need to know their Hebrew and Greek—but one of the most basic reason to learn Latin or to learn Spanish is just so that you finally can see the grammar, the structure, and the vocabulary differences and opportunities and limitations of the language you come from. And travel is that. Travel is the first ability to get to another place, see a different way of organizing life, of social relationships, of production, of consumption, of approaches to technology and the calendar and the rhythm of the day and fashion. And as soon as you start to understand a second way of ordering life, you now can finally start to see and reflect upon the place from which you come. And so I built the travel chapter around this story of about ten buddies of mine, maybe slightly more than that, but basically it’s friends that I grew up with or that I went to college with or that I worked with in my early to mid-twenties, and almost all of them had had some key, formative travel experience. And again this doesn’t have to be expensive travel, it could be just camping, but they had an experience where they went to a new place, and all of a sudden, boom, it was like light bulbs were turned on and they could look back on the place from which they came and reflect on it.

MOHLER: That distinction Daniel Boorstin made was between being a tourist, which is merely passive, and being a traveler, who is deeply invested in the travel. By the way, a very wise man told me many, many decades ago when I was a young husband, he said when you have children, don’t buy them things, buy them experiences, and make sure they have them with you. Take them with you, take them around this country. Again, it doesn’t have to be expensive, but let their eyes be opened and let their eyes be opened with you. I thought that was very, very good advice.

SASSE: Thanks. I put some bullet or checklist options in these last five chapters. We just have ways that my wife and I have started wrestling with not just our teens but when our kids were, you know, four, six, and eight, what are the sort of appetizers you can put in front of them that set the stage or the table for what you want them to be experiencing when they’re twelve and thirteen and fourteen? And one of the most basic things we do is we just wrestle through the social awkwardness of a lot of people who are so used to generationally segregated life, not expecting kids to ever be around, and we just take our kids with us lots and lots of places. Our daughters are fifteen and thirteen and our son is six, so the upper two, you know, they’re well able to sit still and be quiet and hide in the corner and be unobtrusive, but you had to get them to that stage. And I’ve basically taken my kids on the road with me for the last eight years of work life. Even today, as I live in Nebraska, commute to D. C. Monday to Friday 43 or 44 work weeks out of the 52 weeks of the year, and I bring a kid with me almost half, maybe a little bit more than half of the time. We rotate which kid is my date for the week, and there are no other senators that have their kids around committee hearings and all that stuff, but my kids are regularly exposed to different stages of life. And obviously the Senate is a different kind of place than most people are going to be around, but we did this in the last few jobs in callings we had before this as well. We just take the kids on the road, and it’s to your point of buying them experiences. It’s some of the best education they could ever get.

MOHLER: Absolutely. You wrote a book and you are a man of books. As we draw this to a close, I do recall that a little over twenty years ago, you were actually along with our late friend James Montgomery Boice, the editor of a book to which I contributed now over two decades ago. And your love of books and the fact that you are a man of books comes very clearly through your own work here. I want to give you an opportunity to speak about that. What is the role of reading and books in the life of the mind and in the life of the nation?

SASSE: Well-framed. And by the way, I want to give a shout out here to Dr. Boice’s collected volume from that. It’s called Here We Stand, and it was a call from confessing evangelicals in 1996, and your chapter in that is extraordinary and folks should go back and re-read that. My writing chapter is trying to set the stage that the true founder and father of America, if there’s one guy without whom you couldn’t have the American founding, I think it’s Gutenberg. I think mass literacy and the deliberation that comes with becoming a nation of readers is truly a prerequisite for the American experiment. In a broken world, you’re gonna have security and you’re gonna have structure, you’re gonna have order-keeping, and the question is whether or not the discipline and the control comes from yourself or from a more centralized, authoritarian state. And so we want self-restraint, self-discipline, self-government, self-control as a nation, and all of that presupposes a life of the mind that can distinguish between reason and the passions. Obviously the passions and the heart and the loves and the affections are critically important to a life well-lived to God’s glory and honor. You have to be able to get there, to that self-discipline and self-control, by being able to deliberate, and that presupposes a certain kind of reflection that for us is always gonna have darn near its core a literate experience. So a couple distinctions we draw: One, we distinguish for our kids between quality reading and quantity reading, and we realized as soon as we could get them addicted to reading by reading quantity, we would then be able to reshape the quality; we could substitute more and more better works and more vegetables for the cotton candy. And so early on, we just wanted our kids to be readers, and we borrowed from a friend of ours, a guy named Tevi Troy who used to do a lot of stuff for President George W. Bush, and Tevi created this thing for little kids called the Century Club, which is can you get your kid to read 100 books in a year, two a week, and they can start really simple and short books and get them in the habit of thinking of themselves as a reader and developing the discipline. Again, I want our kids to be active, physically running down the world, but I also want them to be able to sit still enough to read. So when we get them addicted, then substitute what’s in it. Another key distinction in the chapter is between a personal canon and a national canon. I think it’s really a shame for the nation that for a long time—this is 120 years in the coming—that we’ve had a drift away from a belief that we need any shared reading list—again, not a compulsory reading list, not a governmental reading list, but a shared set of cultural assumptions about what we should read in common. But by the mid- to late-1980’s it was pretty clear that the canon was going to die. I care about that debate, but I wanted to distinguish in this chapter about the fact that even if you wanted to have a big canon debate, that doesn’t change the fact that most of us in our families and in our schools and in our neighborhoods don’t have kids who are really reading in a way that’s deliberate enough to be fighting about their own bookshelves, whether they can love their neighbor enough and be persuaded by their neighbor to have a deliberative debate about what should be on it. So we made up this kind of construct in the chapter—and by “we” in this case, it’s my wife and I together wrestled through a reading where we said if you have a five-foot shelf, and assume that a book’s about an inch wide, if you could only have 60 books on it, and you had a couple of conditions, one of which is you think a book is important enough to return to read it at least twice in your life, another is you want to buy extra copies of this book to hand out to people you love and care about, how do you argue to a list of only 60 books that you want your kids to leave home with, some they’ve already wrestled through, and others they have already committed these are books they need to wrestle with in the course of their life.

MOHLER: Senator Sasse, you give us hope for the future of a Christian statesman and a man of ideas—a woman of ideas as you are joined by colleagues there in Washington D.C. I want to thank you so much for your life as a public service and for this book and what it represents in terms of your investment in these issues. I also have to end on a personal note not only of appreciation for you, I simply want to say that one of the men that was most important to me in my life was my father-in-law, Marvin Caylor, Mary’s father, from Fairbury and Norfolk, Nebraska, who made a great investment in my life and is so greatly missed. And he would be proud to know that Ben Sasse is the United States Senator, one of two representing the state of Nebraska. So thank you for that.

SASSE: Well thank you for saying that. My dad was born in Fairbury; it’s a tiny little town and most of your listeners would never know that, but that’s a fun providence that my dad was born in the same place. Thank you for having me on, and frankly, thank you for this podcast. I am a listener.

MOHLER: Well, we greatly appreciate that, and we will hope to continue this conversation another time. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

SASSE: Thank you sir.


MOHLER: I’m so thankful for that conversation with Senator Ben Sasse. The book reminds me of a fundamental issue that was raised by the Puritans in terms of why parents should teach their children the catechism and why pastors should see to it to encourage parents to do that very thing. As some of those Puritans understood, it wasn’t just that the children needed the catechism; it was that the parents needed the catechism, and that by the pastoral exhortation to parents to teach the children the Catechism, parents would along the way also learn what they were dutifully to teach their children. I think this is one of those books. You might read this book thinking that it’s primarily about a problem that affects young people in America. That’s the presenting issue, but by the time you get to about the first-third mark of the book, it’s abundantly clear this is a book about all of us. It is a book about American society. It is a book that needs the attention of every single American.

There are a couple of just simply remarkable facets of the book from the very beginning. One, it is written by a United States Senator. Now it’s not unprecedented for a politician to write a book. As a matter of fact, the average campaign these days (especially the national level) comes with some kind of a book, but that book usually fits a couple of criteria. Number one, it’s not really written by the person whose name is on the cover, and secondly, it is rarely a serious engagement with ideas, and if so, it’s mostly about ideas solely in terms of public policy not in terms of worldview, most basic understanding of reality, the philosophical, or (as Senator Sasse made clear) the creedal basis of our society as the United States of America.

This book is a powerful testimony to the power of ideas. Written by a United States Senator, and it’s not merely about policy; it’s a much bigger book than that. I’ve been really interested, ever since the book first became a matter of some initial public conversation, to see how defensive so many cultural authorities are about the very idea that a United States Senator would write such a book. They seem to be looking in the book for something that might be politically divisive, something in the book that might be a tip about certain kinds of current headline policy matters. That’s not what Senator Sasse is about in this book. That’s what makes this book even more important than something that would merely address issues of urgent public policy. Senator Sasses understands that those issues of public policy are, indeed, urgent, but they do not emerge out of a vacuum. Just as I stated in our conversation that if you were to put most American presidents, those whose are the most recognizable names, together in a room, from the first 200 years of this nation’s history, they would easily find a common conversation about that creedal identity of the United States of America and, furthermore, even a great deal of commonality about the substance of that creed: the American idea and the American ideal.

It is a sign of our times, and a quite lamentable one at that, that such a conversation these days reveals a lack of common assumption and, furthermore, on the part of many, a lack of affirmation that this is a creedal nation, that some fundamental truth claims are absolutely necessary for America to be America and, furthermore, to stay America.

There’s another very hopeful aspect to this particular book. It comes down to this: there are actually many good books written by those who hold Ph.D.s in history from Yale University. Very few of them are widely-read. You put the word “Senator” in front of the author’s name, and the book just might get a little more attention, deservedly so. In this book, you see Senator Ben Sasse in so many different contexts: working there in terms of the farm in Nebraska, going to college. You see Ben Sasse as husband and as father and, of course as public servant, college president, and as United States Senator.

As I end, I have to say that perhaps the most hopeful aspect of all of this is that a man of ideas, of these ideas, can still be elected to the United States Senate. I’m very thankful that when we look to Washington, D. C., and to the state capitals and elsewhere in our country, there is still evidence of the Christian statesman. That evidence is on full display, I’m glad to say, in this conversation today.

Again, my thanks to my guest, Senator Ben Sasse, for thinking with me today.

For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.