Senator Ben Sasse on The Vanishing American Adult and the Comey Memo

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Author: Duane Patterson

The junior Senator from Nebraska spends the first hour of the program today discussing his terrific new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and also the New York Times story on the Comey memo.

The Audio:

05-17hhs-sasse

The Transcript:

HH: In studio with me, United States Senator Ben Sasse, who has authored a must-read new book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming Of Age Crisis And How To Rebuild A Culture Of Self Reliance. The Vanishing American Adult is linked over at Hughhewitt.com. Senator Sasse, thanks for joining me this morning.

BS: Good morning, Hugh, thank you for the invite.

HH: It is an extraordinary book, and we’re going to spend a lot of time on it. Just at the beginning, how do your colleagues react to the fact you’ve actually written a book that people are reading as opposed to memoirs or other things, but just a real book? I think we have to go back to Profiles In Courage to find a senator who wrote a real book as opposed to a memoir.

BS: Well, I’m not sure how they’re taking it, but one of the fun conversations has been folks, obviously most people are a generation older than I am, talking about discussing it with their kids about how their kids are raising their grandkids. So they don’t have to be self-skeptical or self-critical of our own parenting. They say I’m using this to beat up my kids about what they’re doing wrong with my grandkids. That’s been fun.

HH: Well, I’ve done the same thing. I have grandchildren. I’ve sent my daughter a copy already. Before we move on to the book, and we’re going to spend a lot of time on the book, I want to talk to you about the New York Times story that came out last night, and which has shaken Washington, D.C. It’s by Michael Schmidt. It begins, “President Trump asked the FBI Director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting. ‘I hope you can let this go,’ the President told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.” I’ve got five questions, then we’ll go to the book. What do you make of this report?

BS: So there’s so much we don’t know, yet. I was in the SCIF three times yesterday, and obviously couldn’t get much information on this kind of a story. So I want to hold out skepticism about all that we don’t know. But just the fundamental alleged facts in there, it’s obviously inappropriate for any president to be trying to interfere with an investigation. We have three branches of government, not one, not 17. There are all sorts of virtues to what the founders were trying to create with our system of checks and balances, but it means investigations and prosecutions have to be somewhere, so they’re in Article II, and under the Justice Department, where you’ve worked before. But just because they’re in Article II doesn’t mean we should think of it as a linear chain of command to political partisan decision making in the White House. So there’s a lot here that’s really scary.

HH: Let me ask you about the testimony of which you were a part. He testified on May 3rd, and I reread that last night. There were at least two exchanges, one with Senator Leahy, one with Senator Coons, about special prosecutors where Mr. Comey could have brought up this meeting with the President. Would it have been appropriate for him to have brought up the existence of a memo detailing pressure from the President in the hearing at which you were a part?

BS: Yes, it would have been appropriate. Again, it sort of begs a bunch of questions about why we’re learning things now in the order that we’re learning them. But let’s recognize that there’s no good way to learn about any of this stuff. We have had an erosion of the rule of law proper for years and years and years in this country. This isn’t the last four months. It isn’t the last 18 months of the ugly campaign of 2016. We have had an erosion of rule of law. But bigger than that, we’ve had an erosion of the conventions and the shared understanding of why the rule of law is so important. This city is not supposed to be the center of the world, and yet five of the seven richest counties in America are now the suburbs that ring Washington, D.C, because a river of money and all sorts of power, and our entire national mindshare flows to here like Washington’s the center of everything. Well, once Washington’s the center of everything, then it’s always going to be a shirts and skins exercise and a zero sum game. And so we the American people don’t together have an understanding of what servant leadership in Washington should look like so that people can live their lives in their own communities back home. Once you have that problem, everything is epic. Everything is the end of time, and that’s the way our media cycles read right now.

HH: Well, we are the new Rome, in many respects, and if the President’s parallel is to the Emperor, and has been since FDR, then the Praetorian Guard is captained by the FBI director. And I would like to know if you think all of Mr. Comey’s notes on all subjects should be turned over to the appropriate committees.

BS: I do. I want to put a qualifier on that. I am the chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, and obviously some of the reasons I was in the SCIF yesterday is because I’m trying to organize, and I don’t want, I’m not prepared to talk about all that in public, yet. I’m trying to organize how I think about what we should be asking for in what order. You saw a bunch of people, both parties, frankly, sprint to the cameras last night to try to comment on things that we don’t often know much about. In the same way that you shouldn’t try to govern America tweet storm to tweet storm, you shouldn’t try to exercise oversight in America hot take to hot take. So I want to go slowly about the way we talk about this, but fundamentally, I do think all of Director Comey’s notes, and I think all, any and all tapes that exist in the White House, ought to all be turned over.

HH: And the reason I bring up all the notes, I want to compare them, as I did last night, to all of his public testimony on all subjects, because, and let me just put out there what worries me the most about this. When I was your age…

BS: 27?

HH: Yeah (laughing), the allegation was that J. Edgar Hoover kept files on everyone, and that as a result, he was untouchable. And so if Comey has a vast trove of notes, I want to know when did they begin, about whom and what subjects are they on? Yes, I want to know whether President Trump obstructed justice, and that’s an open question. But I want to know about what was the FBI director noting and not telling you, because I read that hearing. He should have brought this up to you then.

BS: Well, so this is a great place. I mean, it’s tough to do in radio, because our segments are short, but this would be an example of a way to think about other analogous investigations the Bureau might do where you wouldn’t really want every note to be public, because the FBI’s job is to investigate whether or not they think there’s a sufficient body of evidence to turn over to prosecutors at DOJ to potentially bring a case. And in the cases where DOJ, or where the Bureau recommends, or the DOJ declines to bring a case, when Americans are investigated, we don’t want all that stuff to become public. And so the Bureau’s director, inside the siloing of that organization, would often know about the status of different investigations that the Bureau decides hey, we think this guy cheated on his wife, but we don’t think he actually committed crime X, Y or Z. Again, I’m talking about an analogous hypothetical here. This is not anything about the President. But if he’s doing an investigation of the Bureau as, and they decide somebody might not have committed a crime, but they learned a lot about a salacious and immoral stuff the person did, it’s not the Bureau’s job to dump all that to the public. So there are cases where the Bureau would have notes that shouldn’t all be public. In a case of a situation that’s this important, I think the Article I branch, the legislature who has oversight responsibility, should see all of those notes.

HH: All right, Senator, we’ll leave it there. Let’s go to the book, because you and I have been talking about this book online for quite some time, and I think it’s a world changer. I’ve compared it online to Allan Bloom’s The Closing Of The American Mind, which is high praise. It’s 30 years after The Closing Of The American Mind. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s quite depressing. On Page 261, you point out, “only 2 percent of Americans watch cable television. And those 2 percent are likely to be book buyers as well, and they may hear about The Vanishing American Adult.” But you note that the biggest divide isn’t left-right, blue-red, but it’s between the politically engaged and the politically disengaged. Do you, how do you get word of The Vanishing American Adult to the politically disengaged who actually need to know what’s happening to the American adolescent?

BS: Thanks, thanks for the praise, and I want to be clear. I agree with you that there’s a lot that’s depressing out there. But the book is attempting to be constructive.

HH: Yes, very much.

BS: Some of it is constructive about how do we do habit formation. I think the American people are yearning for a conversation about things that are civic and shared, but not immediately political and power-based. I think we have two movements happening at once. We’re hollowing out local and mediating institutions. The declining of the family is one of the most fundamental stories of our time. Local community is being hollowed out. Lots of that is economic as the economy moves from industrial big tool jobs to post-industrial knowledge economy mobile digital jobs. Local community is less important, and it turns out people have less texture and friendship. But of the bigger national conversations we have, more and more of them are being made into partisan political conversations. In ESPN, it’s really hard to find sports anymore. We just decide everything should be about politics all the time, everywhere. That’s not the way our hearts are built, and that’s not what the American people want. So I am hopeful that neighbor to neighbor, and grandparent to grandparent, and friend to friend, this book can help facilitate a conversation and a movement that I think a lot of American parents want to have, which is are we doing right by our kids.

HH: It’s a movement book, and The Vanishing American Adult, by the way, is linked at Hughhewitt.com. I want to urge you to go over and get it. Read it in your book club. You’re going to be, I have to tell you, you’re going to be riveted. I told my wife last night, I was in Colorado giving the commencement at Colorado Christian University, and I told a couple of people there the story. You always know what sticks with you when you put a book down and you’re done with it, and a day later, you’re telling a story about it. So you want to know the story that I told the most? It’s Pilates class.

BS: Oh.

HH: Would you tell people that story?

BS: Yeah, so I was 37, and I became a college president. So I’m a business turnaround guy by background, but I’m a historian by training. And this special liberal arts college was going to go out of business in Nebraska, a 137 year old place, and they asked me, because I’m a turnaround guy, to lead the institution through a dark period where they were potentially looking at closing their doors. Nothing about why I went there was student culture. And then I get there, that wasn’t why I was called. I get there, and the student culture at this place is a mess. And one story just kept me up at night.

HH: Hold it through the break.

BS: Okay.

HH: Because we, I want people to hear this completely nuanced. This is not a policy book.

BS: Not at all. It’s 100% not politics, and it’s 99% not policy. It’s upstream from that. It’s on more important things than politics and policy.

HH: It’s at the headwaters of culture. It is about the education of youth, which has fascinated thinkers since Plato and the Republic, and it is part of The Vanishing American Adult. And if I’ve teased the Pilates class, you’ve got to stay for that. In fact, just stay until I’m done talking with United States Senator Ben Sasse about his book, The Vanishing American Adult. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, bookstores everywhere. Go and get it, and I’ll be right back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

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HH: We’ve done politics. We’ll come back to it before we’re done, but right now, we’re talking about the book, which is linked at Hughhewitt.com. And I told people before the break the story that stood out, Senator Sasse, is of the Pilates class and your time as president at Midlands. Explain to people why that’s emblematic.

BS: So we had this woman, 23, 24. She’d won a bunch of, I’m not going to give enough details that her classmates could figure out who she is, but she’d won every award at Midland, a great student, well-rounded, extracurriculars, and we snatched her up. We wanted her to be a part of our team. An institution going through crisis, any institution, needs good public faces to go out and talk to donors and talk to the community. And we had her in this public facing role, and she was really exceptional. She was a strong, impressive, attractive young woman, I mean winsomely attractive. And she just had a work ethic problem, though, that she would leave early a lot. And she didn’t really have permission from her supervisor to leave early. She didn’t really think about the consequences for her co-workers of just not finishing things that needed to be done by that night. And finally, we took her in, her boss and I, and we just said hey, we care about you, and you’ve got a great future, but you’re not adding enough value here, because you create all these little fires all the time by just leaving work early, and we’re going to have to let you go. And I’ve done a lot of turnarounds, so I’ve been in bumpy situations where I had to let people go, and it hurts, but usually, you resolve what you were going to do before you’re in the meeting. And she sort of breaks down, and she acknowledges that she has this problem, and she wants to grow up, and she wants accountability, and she wants to get tougher. And so she kind of talks us out of firing her, and we say okay, we’ll give you a second chance. Two days later, her supervisor looks out into the big work area where she and all of her co-workers work, it’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and she’s packing up to leave. She doesn’t have any permission. We don’t know if she has a doctor’s appointment. She’s just leaving. And her supervisor calls her out and says hey, what are you doing?

HH: We just talked about this.

BS: We just talked about this, and she said well, I have Pilates class at 3. And the woman, her boss, her jaw just hits the table. And she goes well, the best instructor, I usually take her class at 6, but today, it’s at 3. And her supervisors says but we just talked about this. And she said yeah, but I didn’t think that applied to Pilates class.

HH: My, the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt and I laughed and laughed about this, because we had exactly the same experience, I won’t go into details, it doesn’t matter, but it seems to be a trait of the millennials. And we should define the millennials. I’ve raised three of them. Your able assistant, James, is one of them. My able producer, Matt, is another of them. They range across the spectrum. But there seems to be a sweet spot in there about their willfulness regarding their own life. That’s how I’ll phrase it.

BS: Yeah, fair. I think you know, a lot of our late teens to early 30-somethings have come of age at a time when we stopped thinking about what the purpose of adolescence was. So this book is, again, constructive. It’s not beating anybody up. But if there were blame laying in the book, it’s at our feet, the parents and the grandparents. It’s not chiefly at the millennials. And here’s what I think has happened. Adolescence is a special gift. Two, two and a half millennia ago, most civilizations came up with this idea that when you hit biological adulthood, you hit puberty, you don’t have to become fully independent immediately – morally, financially, emotionally in terms of household structure. You don’t have to quite education. You don’t have to go off to war the first minute when you’re 12 or 13 and you have an adult body. That 12 months to 4 hours of transitional state between glorious protected childhood and the heights of what human achievement can accomplish pursuing the good, the true and beautiful in the adulthood, that transition is great as long as it’s intentionally a means to an end. Adolescence was never supposed to be a destination. Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Disney has kind of remade it in our mind. It is a bad idea to be stuck between childhood and adulthood, and we have a bunch of kids, a bunch of adolescents, who are stuck there. And we need to help them realize they want to transition through it to the independence of contributing adulthood.

HH: There are many villains in The Vanishing American Adult. The Dr. Doom of the book is John Dewey, damn him. However, we will be back to talk about the suggestions as well as the villains for how we get out of this lassitudinous elongation of adolescence. That’s fairly melodious, mellifluous. The lassitudinous elongation…

BS: Don’t sing for us, Hugh. Do not sing for us.

HH: I can’t, I cannot do it again. I’ll be right back with Senator Ben Sasse. The Vanishing American Adult is linked at Hughhewitt.com. Long segment is coming up. Don’t go anywhere.

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HH: The big villain here is John Dewey, and there are lots of other villains. But I want to talk about big education at this point, Senator Sasse. E.M. Forster said you know you’re being influenced when you say to yourself I might have written that myself if I’d only had a little more time. And so I said to myself again and again and again, I’ve never been able to articulate my critique of big education, but it is the soul-destroying uniformity and the arrogance combined with its ubiquity and its coercion that creates what you detail here. It drains the life out of so many kids, not my kids. I had a great public school system. But expand on what has happened and how we elongated this learning because of John Dewey. I mean, you analyze this. You’re a historian. You’re a PhD historian from Yale. I want people to understand this book reflects that. It’s very well-written, very well-researched. But that is the problem. That’s where this elongated adolescence came from.

BS: Yeah, let’s make sure people know that we are not expressing skepticism about public funding of education for our kids. That’s not what this is about. You’ve put your finger right on it. It’s about the institutional uniformity of secondary education and increasingly tertiary education. School is a tool. It is a great tool. I’m the son of public high school teacher. My dad, football and wrestling coach, my wife has been a public high school teacher. I went to Lutheran elementary, but then public junior high and high school. American public schools are really important. Here’s what we need to understand, historically. Secondary education mass institutionalized, have kids sit inside and sit still from age 14-18, has had all sorts of consequences, some of them good and some of them bad, and we have to be nuanced there. Only 1% of Americans are high school graduates at the end of the Civil War. Almost 80% are high school graduates by World War II. Today, it’s only a little bit higher than that. So the real change came from the 1860s, 70s, to the 1940s. And when we took kids and we said sit inside almost all, more than your half of your waking hours for five days a week, it is a mixed blessing. And for boys, we know in particular there’s a lot of data that shows 15, 16, 17 year old boys becoming more sedentary and more passive, they act out in other ways, and they don’t actually always learn that much more. So on net, I think secondary education has been good, but we need to ask hard questions. John Dewey really is a villain. He wanted to create mass institutionalized secondary schooling partly because he wanted to undermine the family. When you read his stuff, he talks about essentially the theology and the creed of the secondary school, and he is an aggressive atheist in what he wants to accomplish for our kids. And he wants to break down these mediating institutions. I think most American families rightly think that the local school exists to help serve them and their community, and the grandparents and the neighbors in socializing our kids into maturity and independence and adulthood. We don’t want schooling to undermine that. And let’s be clear. Most American teachers have wonderful motives and are doing great stuff for the kids they serve. But we need to ask some hard question about the homogenization of our teenage years.

HH: And why we end up with a generation that does have fairly significant, I want to run down some of our notes, some of the issues here. You’ve got 30% of young men and women between the ages of 25 and 29 are living with their parents. One of four, excuse me, one of our Americans live with their parents. 13% between the ages of 30 and 34, the average age of newlyweds has risen to 28. That’s up six years since 1950. 30% of college students never attend any religious service at all. The knowledge of civics and the love of country has hit all-time lows. The one that scares me the most is the average amount, a substantial share of low-skilled young men now play video games upwards of 30 hours a week. That’s on Page…these are stunning statistics of a generation that has been failed by whatever it is we’ve been doing with them.

BS: Yeah, we are not helping our kids understand that scar tissue is something to be celebrated. There is a distinction between need and want. There is a distinction between production and consumption. And those aren’t just ideas. They have to be things that you experience and you come to know in your belly. Consuming more and more and more stuff doesn’t make you happier. The data is really clear about this, and yet we’re sort of teaching our kids that production, that their work, is supposedly progression through grades in school, sitting inside and passively responding to often spoon fed stuff. And then the rest of their life is supposed to be differentiated kinds of consumption. There’s a lot of cotton candy experiences there, and they fail to know that difference between need and want. A huge part of our duty as parents is to help them understand that not everything I yearn for, not every appetite I have, is necessarily good. And we need to tend to that habit formation aspect of trying to limit our consumption, experience that you can tough it out not always getting everything you want. And frankly, what you want to learn how to do is find meaning in work, not be freed from work. Almost everybody interesting has a really great answer to the question when did you first work hard? When did you first suffer? Where did your work ethic come from? Those people understand that life is about living out a life of gratitude by working and by serving your neighbor.

HH: I was fascinated by, I had missed the hashtag #firstsevenjobs, and you recount it in there. And mine began with caddying and ditch digging and progressed to lifeguarding and mailroom. I didn’t actually take up pen and earn a white collar job until job number 6. And so I was fascinated by that, and I think that’s being lost. But before we go to that, I want to talk a little bit about the other villains. One of the big villains in my world, I believe, is the pressure to go to college, because that which gets rewarded gets repeated. Every school district in America is judged by its college acceptance rate and how many go into the Ivies. And therefore, they torque their education system to this to the destruction of character formation. And I have been on an advisory board in California on a school district for many years. We will never change that. I don’t know how you change that. But do you believe, as I do, that there’s an Uber waiting to happen here? I came to the studio this morning on an Uber. And I think that big education is going to be like the New York taxi medallion very, very soon, something that is rapidly in crisis and declining in value because of this 9% home schooling, 9% Catholic education critical mass up. Do you agree with me on that?

BS: Strongly agree, both descriptively and normatively. I think there is going to be massive disruption in tertiary higher education, you know, the age 18-24 experience is going to be disrupted. And it needs to be. Salman Khan in the Khan Academy, K-H-A-N…

HH: Well-described in the book.

BS: …for folks who don’t know him, we won’t have time to tell his whole story, but the simple version is there’s hybridization coming to higher ed, and in a weird way, the new technology digital mobile moment of what’s coming to higher ed is actually just a screaming advertisement for something Socrates knew 2,500 years ago, which is at a certain point in life, there’s a switch that, there’s a switch that flips. And if you’re not asking pregnant questions as a student, you’re not going to be able to learn very much, and the teacher isn’t going to be able to teach very much. You need to be responding as a teacher to questions that are coming from that active, yearning student who wants to throw open the doors to the library and shake the fruit tree to discover all the interesting aspects of this world. And so you want to have a place where the student becomes a curious demander of more information, and more knowledge.

HH: But do you think secondary education can be Uberized, because I do.

BS: I do, too. I think what’s going to, what needs to happen is we need to have more plural forms of higher ed, and we need that to then crowd down into secondary ed. And instead, we’re doing the opposite.

HH: K-16.

BS: We’re creating K-16. Yeah, we’re creating this idea of grades 13, 14, 15 and 16. Grade 9 is great. Grade 11 is mixed. Grade 13 is terrible. I don’t want higher education and college to look more like high school. I want high school to come look more like college, where students are curious and pursuing and vital and vibrant.

HH: You did not mention in the book, Senator Sasse, but I’ve got to bring it up here now, universal military service. General McChrystal urges universal service, but I actually believe in conscription like the IDF. And I believe it, in part, because it is J.D. Vance’s testimony in Hillbilly Elegy. It is the testimony of everyone I know in Israel that those two years toughen you up very quickly if you do it. What’s your idea on universal service or universal conscription?

BS: So I’m not there, yet, but I think we should be having the debate. We don’t have enough shared American narrative. Our people, we’re not teaching the next generation to think back to one of my heroes and one of your old bosses, President Reagan, who used to regularly say we’re always only one generation away from the extinction of freedom in any republic. You have to teach it to the next generation. Right now, 41% of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the 1st Amendment is dangerous, because you might use your freedom of speech to say something that hurts someone’s feelings. Actually, that’s kind of the point of America, that we protect…

HH: Called it the beating heart, I believe.

BS: Yeah, the beating heart of America is the 1st Amendment – free speech, press, religion, assembly, protests. We protect each other’s right to be wrong. You’re free from violence. Now let’s sit down at a dinner table and actually wrestle with these hard questions together. Our forefathers and mothers came here because they disagreed about Heaven and Hell, really important stuff way upstream from politics. And they said hey, here’s what cultural pluralism means to us. You and I differ on this important theological fight. So let’s agree to have no violence in this conversation. And now let’s invite each other to our churches or our synagogues and wrestle over dinner, or shout in the public square, even. And so I think we need to have attention to the shared American narrative. Your point about IDF in Israel is a great one. I was at an Iron Dome missile installation maybe two years ago, and I was going to learn about the technology about how they were shooting down incoming missiles. And I expected a hulking, 30 year old, you know, macho man soldier was going to come out and tutor me on how this installation worked. And all of a sudden, two 17 year old girls come walking out, women soldiers. But they’re 17. They’re kids. They have long, long dark hair, and they’re going to explain to me this missile installation. And it struck me that it was amazing what they could accomplish. And yet we don’t have that sense of telling our kids all that they can accomplish. Of course, we don’t want people to have to live in a war-town neighborhood of the world. But it is amazing what our kids can accomplish if we celebrate resilience.

HH: And in fact, one of the perhaps understated parts of The Vanishing American Adult is we are being enriched as we speak by the veterans of the long war, the war that began on 9/11.

BS: Amen.

HH: And millions have gone and come back out of military service, and they’re changing the public culture, but not fast enough. Before we go to break, there’s one very inspiring moment that you probably don’t even know will hit people the right way. It’s when you and your colleague from Indiana go off to the Northwest Territories. A) I didn’t know we let senators go to the Northwest Territories. That seems to me to be a little bit crazy. But at that point, you’re not Republican and Democrat, you’re not blue and red.

BS: Right.

HH: You’re just Americans. You have a minute. Tell people about that.

BS: Joe Donnelly, Democratic Senator from Indiana and I, we’re going to argue about a lot of policy. I’m one of the, I’m the third or fourth-most conservative guy in the Senate by voting record. And he’s a Democrat. So we’d fight about policy. But we were in Waziristan in Northwest Pakistan, and this is one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

HH: Robert Kaplan calls is the evilest place on Earth.

BS: It is, it is really depraved. And we’re there getting a briefing on the way Pakistani forces are sometimes helping people cross the border into Afghanistan to attack American troops. The idea that Donnelly and I would fight about policy then is crazy. We’re both there to celebrate American warriors and spies.

HH: And we can celebrate The Vanishing American Adult and will. Stay tuned, America.

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HH: And I’ve only been talking about Part 1 of the book. Now, I want to move to Part 2 of the book. I’ll keep him for about five minutes in the second hour as well. Senator Sasse, one last question about how we’ve gotten here with this cohort, this millennial cohort of soft people. And by soft people, I mean lassitudinous. I believe that there is, with fewer children, parents prize them more and they fear the death of their child more than anything. That’s what animated me more than anything. That’s what helicopter parenting is about. And Manchester By The Sea, if you saw it, captures the agony. Do you believe that it is, that fewer children actually works to make a society more protective of them?

BS: I do. I mean, I think morality is you know, the big story in life all the time that we run from and hide from. But when we have fewer kids, we also treat them differently in ways that often aren’t that good for them. It makes them the center of attention instead of helping them figure out what it means to come into a community that’s bigger than just an individual self.

HH: So let’s go to how do you make sure your kids arrive at adulthood at the right time. And we’re going to skip over a lot of this. I want to talk about de-tasseling and the 4:30 alarm clock. I believe my boys ended up fine, because they were water polo player and swimmers in the water at 6:00 am nine out of twelve months, no matter how cold the water was. You were de-tasseling with a 4:30 alarm. You get up at 4:30 every day like I do for the morning radio. What is the connection between these various tasks and being able to launch?

BS: Yeah, a big part of our job as parents is helping our kids to realize that they can go out and produce, they can go out and serve other people, and that requires internalizing that distinction between production and consumption. I had a grandpa. He never went to college, World War II, greatest generation, kind of hero, and he used to always tell all of his kids and grandkids that every hour of sleep before Midnight counted as two hours of sleep after Midnight. Nothing good ever happened between 9:00 and 10:00, or 10:00 or 11:00 at night. You could get into a lot of trouble. But man, you were wasting a bunch of time if you weren’t out working by 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, if you were sleeping in until 8:00 or 9:00. It was sort of an internalized ethic in our family, and of course, there’s nothing magic about the particular time. But the idea that you get up and you produce first, that changes who you are as a person.

HH: And getting up early and seizing the day, de-tasseling was new to me. I did not understand it, and thank you for the agrarian economy education. In fact, in The Vanishing American Adult, there’s a brief history of nearly everything when it comes to economics and how economies have developed. But de-tasseling, would you describe it to people and how it has a unique shared experience for every Nebraska kid? I have an image in my mind now of every Nebraska kid at the middle school getting picked up go to de-tasseling.

BS: You got it. So corn, if you’re just going to feed it to animals, if you were going to use it to produce fuel, it can fertilize itself. So corn is bisexual. I won’t use technical scientific terms here. But corn has male and female parts. You’ve got a tassel at the top, which is the male seed, and then you’ve got every place where there’s a leaf that becomes a spot where you could grow an ear. But when you’re going to use corn as seed corn for the next year, you want to genetically engineer it to get rid of some recessive traits. And so you cross-pollinate. And so you predesignate as the farmer which rows are going to be female and male. And so you need to take all the female rows and pull out their tassel, pull out their male part. It is just really, really brutal, hard work, because you’re in a field that’s very uneven, that may have had an irrigation pivot, a giant sprinkler that stuck the night before. And it may have groundwater that’s as cold as you can stand at 4:30 or 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. But by 10:00 in the morning, that same field is going to have sun beating down on it that’s 100, 105 degrees. And so you’re going to start out with clothes, these are all sort of you know, 6th, 7th, 8th grade old kids getting bussed from our little town out into the fields. You’re going to start getting cold in the morning, you’re going to be wet, you have to wear sweatshirts, there’s dew on the corn, you’re going to be soaking wet. By 10:00 am, you’re going to start mildewing. And so for the boys, these used to be sort of single gender crews that would be in the fields, for the boys, by 10:00, you’d kind of pull off your sweatshirt and your T-shirt because you’re so hot and your clothes that were wet when they were cold are now mildewing. And the corn ears are going to cut your chest open and your neck and your face, and you’re going to get huge corn rash.

HH: Corn rash. I’ve never heard of it before. But I can visualize it. Good writing.

BS: It looks like poison ivy and then paper cuts on top of it, and you’re going to do this from 4:00 in the morning until 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, and then you get bussed back home and your mom’s not letting you in the house caked with mud, so she hoses you off outside, and you often fall asleep by 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon, and you’ve got to be up again at 4:00 the next morning. And you do that for 35 straight days as a 10, 11, 12 year old kid? It’ll change you in ways that stink, and everybody who’s ever done it looks back on it as glory days.

HH: Glory, and a $ .15 cent per hour bonus if you don’t miss a day. That detail’s in the book. It sticks with me, because it is an incentive. That which gets rewarded gets repeated, and we don’t have enough work for kids.

BS: That’s right, and so I want to be clear. This book is not just romanticizing agrarian labor. Most Americans are living in cities and suburbia and exurbia. The point is this. We’re hollowing out the experience of coming of age, and our kids are insulated from work for some reasons that are just, because we have so much surplus. It’s great to be the people who live at the richest time and richest place in human history. But we the parents need to figure out way to actually create work experiences for them, because it’s essential for a 10 and a 12 and a 14 year old to achieve and produce.

HH: As you write, it is work to create work, but it is necessary work. And to employers out there, it is important that you help create work. When we come back, we’ll have one more segment with Ben Sasse about his book, The Vanishing American Adult. And I want to focus on travel and traveling intentionally. Don’t go anywhere, America, it’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – – – –

HH: And I’ve only been talking about Part 1 of the book. Now, I want to move to Part 2 of the book. I’ll keep him for about five minutes in the second hour as well. Senator Sasse, one last question about how we’ve gotten here with this cohort, this millennial cohort of soft people. And by soft people, I mean lassitudinous. I believe that there is, with fewer children, parents prize them more and they fear the death of their child more than anything. That’s what animated me more than anything. That’s what helicopter parenting is about. And Manchester By The Sea, if you saw it, captures the agony. Do you believe that it is, that fewer children actually works to make a society more protective of them?

BS: I do. I mean, I think morality is you know, the big story in life all the time that we run from and hide from. But when we have fewer kids, we also treat them differently in ways that often aren’t that good for them. It makes them the center of attention instead of helping them figure out what it means to come into a community that’s bigger than just an individual self.

HH: So let’s go to how do you make sure your kids arrive at adulthood at the right time. And we’re going to skip over a lot of this. I want to talk about de-tasseling and the 4:30 alarm clock. I believe my boys ended up fine, because they were water polo player and swimmers in the water at 6:00 am nine out of twelve months, no matter how cold the water was. You were de-tasseling with a 4:30 alarm. You get up at 4:30 every day like I do for the morning radio. What is the connection between these various tasks and being able to launch?

BS: Yeah, a big part of our job as parents is helping our kids to realize that they can go out and produce, they can go out and serve other people, and that requires internalizing that distinction between production and consumption. I had a grandpa. He never went to college, World War II, greatest generation, kind of hero, and he used to always tell all of his kids and grandkids that every hour of sleep before Midnight counted as two hours of sleep after Midnight. Nothing good ever happened between 9:00 and 10:00, or 10:00 or 11:00 at night. You could get into a lot of trouble. But man, you were wasting a bunch of time if you weren’t out working by 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, if you were sleeping in until 8:00 or 9:00. It was sort of an internalized ethic in our family, and of course, there’s nothing magic about the particular time. But the idea that you get up and you produce first, that changes who you are as a person.

HH: And getting up early and seizing the day, de-tasseling was new to me. I did not understand it, and thank you for the agrarian economy education. In fact, in The Vanishing American Adult, there’s a brief history of nearly everything when it comes to economics and how economies have developed. But de-tasseling, would you describe it to people and how it has a unique shared experience for every Nebraska kid? I have an image in my mind now of every Nebraska kid at the middle school getting picked up go to de-tasseling.

BS: You got it. So corn, if you’re just going to feed it to animals, if you were going to use it to produce fuel, it can fertilize itself. So corn is bisexual. I won’t use technical scientific terms here. But corn has male and female parts. You’ve got a tassel at the top, which is the male seed, and then you’ve got every place where there’s a leaf that becomes a spot where you could grow an ear. But when you’re going to use corn as seed corn for the next year, you want to genetically engineer it to get rid of some recessive traits. And so you cross-pollinate. And so you predesignate as the farmer which rows are going to be female and male. And so you need to take all the female rows and pull out their tassel, pull out their male part. It is just really, really brutal, hard work, because you’re in a field that’s very uneven, that may have had an irrigation pivot, a giant sprinkler that stuck the night before. And it may have groundwater that’s as cold as you can stand at 4:30 or 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. But by 10:00 in the morning, that same field is going to have sun beating down on it that’s 100, 105 degrees. And so you’re going to start out with clothes, these are all sort of you know, 6th, 7th, 8th grade old kids getting bussed from our little town out into the fields. You’re going to start getting cold in the morning, you’re going to be wet, you have to wear sweatshirts, there’s dew on the corn, you’re going to be soaking wet. By 10:00 am, you’re going to start mildewing. And so for the boys, these used to be sort of single gender crews that would be in the fields, for the boys, by 10:00, you’d kind of pull off your sweatshirt and your T-shirt because you’re so hot and your clothes that were wet when they were cold are now mildewing. And the corn ears are going to cut your chest open and your neck and your face, and you’re going to get huge corn rash.

HH: Corn rash. I’ve never heard of it before. But I can visualize it. Good writing.

BS: It looks like poison ivy and then paper cuts on top of it, and you’re going to do this from 4:00 in the morning until 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, and then you get bussed back home and your mom’s not letting you in the house caked with mud, so she hoses you off outside, and you often fall asleep by 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon, and you’ve got to be up again at 4:00 the next morning. And you do that for 35 straight days as a 10, 11, 12 year old kid? It’ll change you in ways that stink, and everybody who’s ever done it looks back on it as glory days.

HH: Glory, and a $ .15 cent per hour bonus if you don’t miss a day. That detail’s in the book. It sticks with me, because it is an incentive. That which gets rewarded gets repeated, and we don’t have enough work for kids.

BS: That’s right, and so I want to be clear. This book is not just romanticizing agrarian labor. Most Americans are living in cities and suburbia and exurbia. The point is this. We’re hollowing out the experience of coming of age, and our kids are insulated from work for some reasons that are just, because we have so much surplus. It’s great to be the people who live at the richest time and richest place in human history. But we the parents need to figure out way to actually create work experiences for them, because it’s essential for a 10 and a 12 and a 14 year old to achieve and produce.

HH: As you write, it is work to create work, but it is necessary work. And to employers out there, it is important that you help create work. When we come back, we’ll have one more segment with Ben Sasse about his book, The Vanishing American Adult. And I want to focus on travel and traveling intentionally. Don’t go anywhere, America, it’s the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – – – –

HH: The Senator is pressed for time. He spent an hour with me, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom about what’s happened to adolescence. There is a very long Part II about what to do about it with very detailed lists at the end I found very useful. I’ve sent it to my daughter vis-à-vis my grandkids. I want you to expand on two things, though, resisting consumption, encouraging travel, because these are two things that it doesn’t matter what your budget is. You can do both of them.

BS: Right. Yeah, so first of all, habits are such a part of who we become as people. And right now, we have a bunch of kids that we’re stranding in adolescence and letting them believe that if they just consume more stuff, they’ll be happier, even though philosophy and theology tell us that isn’t true. But social science tells us that isn’t true as well. The things that drive whether or not people are happy in life is whether or not they have meaningful work, whether or not they have a family, whether or not they have a few friends, whether or not they have a theological framework to make sense of death and suffering. And consuming is a means to an end. Consuming isn’t the end. And right now, we’re letting our kids drift into a belief that if they can just pursue more consumption, they’ll be happier. So much of happiness is really a sort of fraction. The numerator is needs met, and the denominator is perceived needs. And if you grow your perceived needs more and more and more, and you have more and more yearning and more and more appetites, you end up just more and more unfulfilled. And our kids are actually tough enough. I mean, our kids, America’s kids, are tough enough to develop this softly-stoic sense that, but you don’t have to pursue all that consumption. You want to think about what habits you form. You want to figure out how you spend your time. You don’t want a more cotton candy existence.

HH: And one of those habits is the habit of travel. I tell my law students every year, every semester often, you are four and a half hours away from Yosemite. Get in the car, skip class, go to Yosemite, one of the world’s great natural wonders. Every year, I get maybe one out of 60 to do it, because they don’t understand that that’s a life-changing moment. I think if only for your chapter on traveling rough and traveling far, being on the Adriatic Sea with, on the top deck with only every piece of clothing on, nevertheless, expound on the values of this, and to start young, and to teach your children well how to travel and to be scouts.

BS: Amen. We have some friends who have figured out that when their daughter became 7, 8, 9, they would have her kind of plan the next day’s, you know, urban hike if they were in city for something. They would decide they were going to go hike and see a bunch of different neighborhoods, and they would make her go and map it. And they would sort of, it’s not helicopter parenting, it’s stealth parenting. They would sort of follow her hidden behind as she would go and scout the neighborhoods. This is not about the grand European tour. This isn’t about if you have enough money to go and travel in some you know, aristocratic, elite way. This is about going to a neighborhood ten minutes from your house and seeing how life is organized differently in production and consumption and neighborliness, or organized differently. This is about going camping. This is about traveling with a backpack that only has 18 pounds of stuff, and you’re, you’ve got $ 7 dollars a day as a 19 year old kid. When you go to a new place, you develop fresh eyes to see where you’re from in ways that you never saw it before. There’s that overused, sometimes, story about how a fish could never describe water to you, because he’s never been out of water. In a way, until you go somewhere different, you don’t only not learn the new place, you don’t really have the eyes to see where you’re from. And a huge part of our responsibility as parents is giving our kids those fresh eyes.

HH: One of the italicized portions in the book is the ability to develop distinction making. And you want people to do that. I have two final questions for you, Senator. I know you have to run. The first one is where did the great fear come from? When I am a child of the 60s, a kid, my parents don’t know where I am for most of the day. I just have to be home at dark. And no one worried about abduction. No one worried about death. No one, you just, A) they didn’t have time. They’d throw you out of the house. Where did the great fear come from that the helicopter parent arose out of?

BS: I’m not really sure, but I think some of it is our media consumption habits. The objective reality of a whole bunch of different risks of mortality and kidnapping and injury are actually much, much reduced over the last many decades, and yet people’s perception of these catastrophic events is increased, because we consume media of some bad thing that happened far away in a way that we wouldn’t have done in the past. And one of the unfortunate consequences of that, there are many unfortunate consequences, but one of them is we think that if you just sit still and don’t move and become passive, you’ll be safer. And that isn’t really true. There’s a whole bunch of data, I talk a lot in the book about celebrating scar tissue. But there’s a bunch of data that says that helicopter parenting actually yields increased injuries for a lot of kids. If your kids don’t learn how to fall as a 3 and a 4 and a 5 year old, it turns out when they’re a 10 year old kid, and especially 10 year old boys, they’re going to jump off a fence or a roof. It’s inevitable. And if they didn’t learn how to fall before, they’re far more likely to get a neck injury, because they didn’t go through the little scabs and bruises and stitches that came earlier. And so we need to do a much better job of telling our kids that they’re resilient, to encouraging them to persevere, and frankly, having big parties when they get stitches, but don’t actually end up with a real lasting neck injury.

HH: It’s like there are three car crashes in every teenager’s life. Just be glad when they’re just actually fender benders. Senator Sasse, thank you. My last question, you’re a public intellectual now, important book, The Vanishing American Adult. You’re an American Senator. What is your biggest job? I mean, you’ve got this Comey crisis is going to consume your day and your week. And we talked about it earlier, and we’ll come back to it. And you know that the media would love to find you and talk to you about it. What is your job? What does Ben Sasse think of as his job?

BS: Well, first of all, we all have plural callings. So we’ve got lots of different identities and responsibilities, and my first job is to be a great dad and to be a faithful husband and to worship and to learn and to grow as a person. But in my paid job as a servant of the American people in the Senate, obviously there’s a whole bunch of legislation we should be fighting about. But this city is obsessed with short termism. We are not dealing with the big generational crises we face in terms of legislation. We don’t have a national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad, despite the fact that the Cold War ended 28 years ago. We’re still thinking about this as only nation-state actors. It’s the piece of Westphalia from the 1640s up to 1989, and we act like nothing’s changed. And yet when you talk to spies and generals, the things that they’re worried about are often non-state actors and the new way cyber are going to remake war. There’s parallel stuff on domestic and economic policy about this shrinking duration of jobs. So lots matters there in the policy domain, but it’s not just short term policy. It’s long term. But I’d say even more than that, one step up, we have to have a shared understanding of what America is about, and we don’t do civics education in America anymore.

HH: As made clear in the book.

BS: And America will not last if our people don’t understand why the 1st Amendment is the beating heart of this experiment.

HH: You’re on Judiciary. I hope it’s your next Supreme Court confirmation, or the FBI director confirmation, you talk about civics with them. By the way, do you think we need an FBI director ASAP?

BS: The Bureau is an important institution. The President should be nominating someone quickly. But it’s not helpful for us to think about it only in terms of the public face of the leadership. We need to preserve and protect and rebuild the culture of these institutions that are being eroded, that the public trust in them is being eroded. But I would love it if the President nominated someone apolitical that had lots of bipartisan credibility and trust, and that the law enforcement community also believed in.

HH: I hope he nominated J. Michael Luttig from Boeing, because he was on the 4th Circuit and has a, well, there are a lot of reasons which people will discover. But getting it done in a hurry, I think, matters to restoring credibility on this obstruction issue as well. Do you agree with that?

BS: I do.

HH: Senator Ben Sasse, thank you for joining me, and spending so much time. The book is a huge success already. I know you’re doing lots of interviews about The Vanishing American Adult. Last comment by you, who do you want to read this?

BS: Moms and dads and aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas, but what’s also been great is a whole bunch of teens and 20-somethings have been reaching out. The book came out yesterday. The Vanishing American Adult came out yesterday. But over the last three days, I’ve had outreach from lots of teens and 20-somethings, and that’s been encouraging as well.

HH: You know, Frank Luntz says you’ve got to say the title of a book seven times in any segment, or people can’t remember it, so it’s The Vanishing American Adult, The Vanishing American Adult, The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse.

BS: Four to go, Hugh. Four times to go.

HH: Well, I said it a few times earlier in the segment, so that’s good. Any predictions on the Big 10 for this year? We have one minute left.

BS: Yeah, Ohio State’s coming to Nebraska for a really ugly loss they’re going to suffer, and we’re going to try to comfort you after the game.

HH: Did you, did you have a poll of, when you decided to go to Harvard and then Yale, did you think about not going to Big Red as a big deal?

BS: Oh, my goodness, the only reason I went to Harvard is because they have crappy athletics. I didn’t go because they had good academics. I went because their sports were bad enough that they’d let me play. I’m a Husker through and through.

HH: Did you wrestle for the Crimson?

BS: I didn’t have varsity matches there, but I went there because I was recruited, and I was on the wrestling team freshman and sophomore year. But yeah, if Nebraska would have let me play any sport, I would have been there. And still today, I’ve told Nebraskans that I have a six year commitment, but with an asterisk. If the athletic department ever calls, my dream job is to be offensive coordinator for the Huskers. And I’m still…

HH: Oh, you’re offensive coordinator. Yeah, your dad was a football coach. Was he a good football coach?

BS: Heck yeah.

HH: He won?

BS: His team won the state championship in wrestling, so he was better in wrestling, as am I. But football is our love.

HH: Does that make you a Broncos fan?

BS: Uh…

HH: Careful.

BS: Mostly Packers, but Nebraska divides our loyalties between the Broncos and the Packers.

HH: Senator Ben Sasse, thank you. The book, The Vanishing American Adult, available at Hughhewitt.com.

End of interview.

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