GOP Senator Ben Sasse Thinks America's Kids are a Bunch of Snowflakes

Remember when Jeb! Bush tried to hide his bland, uninspired Republicanism behind a hoodie? That’s sort of what Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse does, except in his case, it’s far-right conservatism and a great deal of hypocrisy hidden behind aw-shucks, faux-folksy intellectualism.

After all, for all the praise Sasse gets for “passing the test of conscience,” he has towed—and voted—the GOP line. He gave a thumbs up to the Senate’s efforts to shred the Affordable Care Act, even tweeting, astonishingly, that his 16-year-old daughter thought the Senate’s healthcare vote “sounds like the lamest party ever.” (Perhaps Ben “Cool Dad” Sasse ought to incorporate fractions into his next homeschooling class to demonstrate the significance of one-sixth of the American economy.)

Sasse, in case you missed it, is the author of a new book, The Vanishing American Adult. It’s a “real book” about “real things,” as the historian-turned-college-president-turned-pol takes pains to point out. Sasse offers up a stern indictment of how America is raising its kids and offers up some homespun prescriptions for setting them aright. Snowflake syndrome is nothing that a little corn detasseling, wood chopping, or cow butchering can’t cure.

But really, the book is about education. Beneath Sasse’s Cornhusker wisdom and self-reliance talk (remember back before polio was eradicated and people built all that character overcoming it?), lurks the standard conservative policy of hostility towards traditional public schools and the expanded role they play in the lives of millions of kids. Sasse, don’t forget, was an enthusiastic supporter of another leading luminary of “self-reliance”: Betsy DeVos.

Sasse does an admirable job hiding ideology behind big words and more than a couple of gaps in statistical argumentation. At the heart of his argument is the case that “education” and “schooling”  are different, and that what he considers critical “life lessons” outweigh the importance of time spent in a classroom. But Sasse’s conception of the role regular schooling ought to play would unquestionably prove foreign to virtually every parent outside of the white, upper-middle-class, culturally-conservative base Sasse’s book is written for.

Sasse frames his rejection of the traditional role of schooling around a rejection of John Dewey’s conception of schooling, which Sasse interprets as, “everything about the child’s life centers on the modern school […], and Dewey’s student ultimately has no soul.” Dewey, by Sasse’s interpretation, sees schooling as the exclusive pathway by which a child becomes an adult. Combine that with Dewey’s faith in universal (and, by Sasse’s extension, state-run) education, and Sasse’s portrayal is downright scary.

To frame Dewey as that totalistic is disingenuous and simplistic. Worse, Sasse’s idea of the role the modern American school plays is wildly out of touch with the social and economic reality of America.

Sasse writes that “most thoughtful parents know that we’ve placed excessive faith in schools’ ability to remake our kids for us.” He suggests that, instead, five Sasse-conceived “habits” are “at least as important as schooling.” These habits include “breaking free of the tyranny of one generation” (tell kids to “ask hard questions of dinner guests,” Sasse recommends, since all kids in America attend dinner parties) and “creating your own canon.”

Sasse helpfully describes his own canon. Ranging from its first category, “God,” to philosophical works by Aristotle and Plato to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, it’s a broad survey of the classics, though the list is overwhelmingly dominated by works of white, Christian men.

But the most perspective-starved moment of the entire book comes in the “Travel to See” chapter, in which Sasse suggests families “go live somewhere else for sixty days,” explaining that the “dozens of folks” with whom he’s discussed this idea found that “a review of their family calendars” was all it took to find a pocket of time.

Clearly, the dozens of folks Sasse chatted with didn’t include any of the 45 million folks in this country who live below the poverty line or the 180 million folks whose bank account contains less than $1,000, for whom a whimsical travel experience is obviously a bigger burden than moving junior’s lacrosse camp and finding a kennel for the dog.

This is the problem with the premise upon which Sasse’s fantastical, Eat, Pray, Love-esque recommendations are built, particularly when they’re presented as literal equivalents or even alternatives to public schooling: Sasse doesn’t even feign trying to shape his vision of the new American adult around the reality of the poor, the working-class, or even the middle-class.

Sasse’s idea of the role a school should play hinges on the delusion that all parents have the resources to simply choose an alternative: choose to travel, choose to read Rousseau with their kid, choose to “find old people in airports and have your kids ask them about their first jobs” (this is a quote). It’s precisely because of this that the Senator’s vision for the new American adult is accessible only to a select, privileged set of folks.

Needless to say, for public-education-minded progressives, Sasse’s book should be read as a reminder of just how high the stakes are in protecting and improving ordinary, neighborhood public schools, especially those that play safe-haven roles in vulnerable communities and volatile families.

Because the conservative intelligentsia adores Sasse’s minimizing vision of the role of public education. In his review of the book, Paul Peterson of Harvard’s Kennedy School bases his own dismissal of public education directly on Sasse’s reading of Dewey, writing that Dewey’s expansionist “dogma,” which Peterson sees including even basics like kindergarten and school lunch programs, has become “character-crippling.”

It’s possible that Sasse intended for The Vanishing American Adult  to read simply as fodder for the dinner party class. But I suspect Sasse’s hopes are higher: indeed, Sasse is clearly positioning his anti-government, deeply conservative ideology to become the Republican battle cry post-Trump. The time to defend ordinary schools for ordinary kids is now.

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