Our board president recommended a book to me recently, and he was really excited about this book. It is common for him to get excited about theology books and such, but this was a book by a politician—not at all common for him to get into a book like that. As it turned out, my family already owned the book. My youngest son had gotten it for his mother a few months ago; he had been so captivated that he read half of it in the bookstore before he bought it. (Is that even legal?)
Needless to say, because it came so highly recommended by two of my favorite people, I had to give the book a chance. The title is The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Build a Culture of Self-Reliance. The author is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. I am less than 100 pages in, but already I find myself agreeing with Sasse frequently, not because he is saying what I would have said, but because he has recognized a problem that many of us have recognized and has begun to unravel the why through research. I fully expect his ideas about a solution before I reach the end.
One of the things that has struck me early in this book is Sasse’s assertion that children need to learn from their parents more than from their peers. He points to an increase in schooling between 1850 and 1950, noting that a new high school “was built every day in America between the years 1890 and 1920.” Sasse calls this rise in “mass schooling” an incubator for a culture where children are insulated from their parents and frequently from other adults as well. Sasse, a historian himself, quotes two historians in the passage below, but the whole passage is set in a larger context that draws frequently from Neil Postman. In short, Sasse isn’t making this stuff up.
“Rather than a short transition period of personal uncertainty and discovery,” Paula Fass observes in The End of American Childhood, adolescence was becoming “a prolonged sojourn of development spent among other youth.” School was not only about in-classroom learning; it was also—or even primarily—a social hub. “When a teenage majority spent the better part of their day in high school, they learned to look to one another and not adults for advice, information, and approval,” observes cultural historian Grace Palladino. “And when they got a glimpse of the freedom and social life the high school crowd enjoyed, they revolutionized the very concept of growing up.” By the 1950s, adolescence was decreasingly a period of moral development under parental authority, and increasingly a period in which unchaperoned peers shaped the sensibilities of those coming of age.
One thought likely going through your mind now is Ron, you run a school, and you are quoting a guy who sounds as if he is against schooling! Obviously, I am not against schooling, and I don’t think Sasse is against it either. What we are both against is children left to themselves (Proverbs 29:15).
Trinitas teachers work hard to stay involved in the lives of our students, to keep them close to us, especially in the Logic and Rhetoric schools. We talk about it frequently as a faculty. We know that living close with students in community changes them more than what happens in the classroom alone. We want to be bigger influences in their lives than their peers are; after all, we stand in loco parentis and so that is our job. Still, Trinitas is a school with age-graded classes. We are small, which helps us put students of all ages together frequently; still, even Trinitas is an environment in which students can spend time with their peers that isn’t always micro-managed by an adult.
What to do? Many parents have heard Trinitas teachers and administrators say, “Pull them close,” when asked how they should respond to certain behaviors. Not only in the passage above but in the whole portion of the book I have read thus far, Sasse seems to be saying that our failure to do this well over the past seventy-five or more years has led to this point in American culture where children never grow up and adults want to be like them—Neverland, if you will.
Teachers are often asked by parents what they should do over the summer to continue their children’s education. Here is all you have to do: pull them close. Let them do everything with you: bake cookies, clean toilets, climb mountains, mow grass; shave, read, eat, paint, exercise, fish, surf, work. Teach them what grown-ups do—especially your tweens and teens. Don’t leave them stuck in Neverland. Pull them close.