Will We Re-Find the Center of America? Post 1 of 3 on Sen. Ben Sasse’s Book “The Vanishing American Adult”

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Will We Re-Find the Center of America? Post 1 of 3 on Sen. Ben Sasse’s Book “The Vanishing American Adult”

Part One of a three-part series on The Vanishing American Adult, by Sen. Ben Sasse


Ben Sasse and I are very different people.

  • Sasse is a conservative Republican who grew up in rural Nebraska, and now represents that deep red state in the United States senate.  I am a fiscally pragmatic, social progressive, usually-votes-Democratic, business-person-turned educator who grew up in the deepest blue San Francisco Bay Area of deep blue California.
  • Sasse is a self-described committed and practicing Christian. I am a person of deep personal faith that might best be described as the Venn intersection of Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, and post-Newtonian quantum scientist.
  • Sasse has a nearly-perfect GOP party-line voting record in the US Senate. I am opposed to almost everything that the GOP is trying to push through Congress on a narrow party-line agenda that I believe is rooted in myopia and to be honest, a great deal of misdirected self-interest.

And, Ben Sasse and I are similar in many ways.

  • Sasse worked in international business before becoming a young president of a small college, and then committing himself to public service as a politician. I worked in international business before becoming a senior administrator at a large K-12 school before committing myself to the transformation of our education system.
  • Sasse’s grandparents were Mid-western farmers who survived the Depression through endless hours of toil and grit and just saw that as “what we did”. My paternal grandfather was the son of Jewish immigrants, a small-time New York stock broker who kept his business afloat during the Depression with similar grit.
  • We are both well-educated white men who grew up in two-parent households with parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, friends, and nearby families who cared about us, looked out for our best interests, and, while modest relative to some, were provided more than the basics of a comfortable life during our childhood.
  • We both have been vocal critics of Donald Trump, the rise of isolationist nationalism, and popular acceptance of lies as truth.
  • We both believe that education done right can transform lives and that education in America is not, for the most part, being done right.

I would have loved to accompany Sasse on the formative trips he took around the country and around the world as a student, a business consultant, and now as a senator, learning from and with people of widely-varied backgrounds. I think Sasse would have loved to accompany me on my formative trips: in my twenties when I bought a one-way ticket to Asia and spent a year walking, riding trains, eating with locals, and sleeping on train platforms; my business trips to the former USSR and successor nations, from winters in Siberia to summers in Uzbekistan, during the turbulent late 1980’s and early 1990’s; and my Steinbeck-inspired solo 3-month drive around America in 2012 to visit 64 schools and find out how education is actually changing.

I think Sasse would have particularly loved to sit with me as I watched privileged American high school students weep over the life-changing lessons they learned by living just five days with families in bamboo huts in the Philippines.

What I know or can intuit about Ben Sasse comes from reading his book, The Vanishing American Adult, a must-read for educators, as well as for anyone else in our country who believes that the core center of powerful American values is being torn apart by forces of dangerous incivility, general ignorance of American history, and a lack in both the skills and responsibilities of democratic civics…and that we are failing to prepare our next generation to mend this great divide. I am old enough to think that Sasse may lay at least partial claim to the tradition of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York and advisor to Republican Richard Nixon, whose stands were varied and controversial, but who advocated with an intellect and perspective that unfortunately seems largely lost in our elected states-people to the distant mists of the 18th, 19th , and early 20th centuries.

In this three-part blog, which may be one of the more important I have written in several years, I will first try to summarize the remarkable overlap in what Sasse and I (and many of you) believe is needed in transforming our system of education.  In the second installment, I will dig into what I believe are critical flaws in Sasse’s argument, which, given the thesis of his book, I hope he will appreciate.  Third, I will try to add to his conversation about the role education must play in rebuilding “the center” in a time when powerful forces are tearing that center apart.

Core Areas of Agreement

The core thesis of Sasse’s book is that he believes that our children are fundamentally ill-prepared for the challenge of carrying on the Great American Experiment, one which we both believe is not only unique in human history, but may well be critical to solving a range of existential global problems.  And we both believe that our current system of education is fundamentally ill-suited to improving this necessary preparation of the next generation.

At the core of our agreement are several key elements. First, unlike many other politicians from both dominant parties, Sasse is willing to not only say that “our kids are not ready for the world they are soon going to inherit”, but he is willing to argue why, and to offer potential solutions. I don’t agree with all that he says—not by a long shot. But at the heart of Sasse’s writing is an apparent willingness to enter into debate predicated on where we agree, rather than into fractious battles centered on where we do not.  This attitude lies at the center of what my famous uncle, Roger Fisher, founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, titled “getting to yes”.

Second, we agree that our nation and our world are facing truly complex, probably unprecedented challenges, and that “all of the proposed solutions to address these (existential) problems are meaningless, though, if we lack an educated, resilient citizenry capable of navigating the increasing complexities of daily life.” Sasse cites at least some of the “many urgent national problems—from health care to immigration, from cybersecurity to new job creation”, while unfortunately leaving several other enormous issues to the side: climate change, income inequality, universal civil rights, and the national debt should be on his list.

Sasse argues that, for the last 150 years, institutionalized school has replaced family, work, church, and other social relationships as the primary way our children spend their time and learn, as opposed to learning from their parents, in a job, or with and from other sources in their communities. In other words, as so many of us have identified, and as I describe as the first lever in Moving the Rock, we have artificially separated “school” from “world”, to the detriment of our children and the greater society. What Sasse does not credit in this regard is that, fortunately, we find examples where schools and districts have started to bust through this artificial boundary, where school is becoming, as I have often said, “where we meet, not where we learn”. It is in these school systems where we already find the formula of the future.

Sasse and I both see a rising generation that is often ill-suited to hard work; focused on consumption rather than production; lacks understanding of history, geography, and the civics that are basic requirements of a successful democracy; are frequently unable to separate fact from fiction; rely on technology rather than their own intellect to get through much of daily life; and spend a tremendous amount of time in school learning things that are of marginal value in the real world.  The difference between us, at least from what Sasse writes in the book, is that he sees these as universal traits of the young generation, while I, in my travels and many school visits see a much broader landscape, with examples of school promoting the opposite of all of these shortcomings poking up with increasing frequency.

Some specific areas of the education system that Sasse cites in his book resonated particularly with me:

1. Technology

Sasse lays out how various revolutions in technology have played major roles in the shift in attitudes and abilities in the dozen generations that separate us from or nation’s founder, and the 2-4 generations that separate the Greatest Generation from the millenials and their kids.  A wide range of technologies have made America what Sasse calls a “nation of riches” (about which I will argue in the next post), a place where many of us, but particularly young people, are unable to separate or understand the difference between “needs” and “wants”.  Digital technologies have sucked up so much of the available oxygen in our lives, with young self-absorbed people spending large majorities of their waking hours in front of screens, much of it passive, mind-numbing, addictive television and video games that continuously reinforce a hedonistic, self-centered mix of violence, Madison Avenue beauty, entitlement, and over-consumption.

At the same time, as I have argued, particularly with the rise of highly-relational technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence, Sasse agrees that “the digital revolution’s disruption of other businesses—from stock brokerages and travel agencies to journalism and music publishing—will also fundamentally transform schooling” much more powerfully than the adoption of the personal computer did 20 years ago. One of the five Big Hairy Challenges that I promote to educators is how we will teach our children to deal with technologies that now evolve faster than their own ability to adapt.  None of us have a clue how to do this in any systematic way, yet we agree that is critical for us to do so. Technology is a given in our lives; as educators we can either give in to it or leverage it; at least some of that choice is up to us.

2.The University System

As if plucked from the pages of Moving the Rock, Sasse asks:

“Where are the incumbent power brokers in American education—and especially at the university education schools—trying to take our national conversation about reform? Instead of admitting that our one-size-fits-all model is extending the period of adolescence rather than producing active learners” he says, “we are lazily deciding to invest even more power and authority in the same one-size-fits-all model.”

I could not agree more. Our colleges and universities, in which America has well-deserved pride, have utterly failed to lead the needed transformation of education in any significant way, largely due to their own enormous inertia and selfish unwillingness to rise to the challenge.  Of the seven levers of powerful transformation potential I describe in the book, changing how we train new teachers is the one that could be radically accomplished literally overnight, yet likely will take decades.

Sasse believes that “the champions of factory-era mass schooling have managed to maintain fairly uniform control over almost all teacher training institutions up to the present day. Thus, despite widespread public worry over the quality of secondary education, no alternative model has ever gotten substantial investment or even crystallized attention.”  My work suggests a less Machiavellian, but no less obstructive cause: bodies at rest stay at rest until acted upon by an external force. How profoundly exciting and transformative it would be if 50 major teaching colleges and universities just got together and said “darn it; by September of 2019 we are going to have a revamped program that trains teachers for the future, not for the past”.  But that is wishful thinking.  K-12 school systems, college schools of education, state and national governments, and accreditation networks still point the finger of blame at each other rather than, except in isolated cases, just sitting down and solving the problem.

3. Deeper Learning

Without using the term, Sasse is a proponent of a deeper learning model as opposed to the industrial age assembly line model of learning. Drawing on philosophers from Augustine to Rousseau, he urges that “we need to affirm and refine student agency” to support the need for deeper, more experiential learning. My heart swelled when I read that Sasse believes, “our kids are not commodities; they are plants—they require a protected environment, and care and feeding, but most basically an internal yearning to grow toward the sunlight”, aligning with my own “teacher as farmer” and developer of natural ecosystems that I describe in major sections of #EdJourney.

Sasse would LOVE what is happening at schools of deeper learning around the country. Like I, he would wish that his kids had found such schools during their K-12 years.  I learned about Sasse’s book through my friend and colleague, teacher Megan Power, one of the founding team I got to work with when Design 39 Campus was being imagined, and this year a teacher-ambassador to the US Department of Education.  I can see Sasse visiting a school like Design 39 Campus, and, rather than finding spoiled, entitled, technology-numbed kids being pushed along the assembly line, he would see the engaged, thoughtful, creative, self-directed, outwardly-looking, design-oriented children that he knows America needs.

As many of you know, I have visited something like 150 schools in the last 5 years: public, charter, and private, and I keep a list of many I have not been able to visit…and these are just the tip of the iceberg.  In the past, before it became a dog-whistle word, we called these schools “progressive”.  Much of what Sasse is begging for in a school is already here: students responsible for making choices and directing their own learning; deep, rich experiences in and with the community; designing, making, and producing real things; finding and solving real-world problems in partnership with community non-educators as well as their traditional teachers.  The problem is not that the schools that Sasse wants don’t exist; the problem is that we, and in this our government leaders have been particularly missing, have not nurtured them at scale, which is exactly why I wrote both #EdJourney and Moving the Rock.  The examples of deeper learning are exploding around us. There are many fewer structural impediments to creating these schools, and many more examples of what is already working, than we think.

Sasse is first a parent, and of the thousands of parents, across region, race, and economic circumstances with whom I have interacted over the last decade, the vast majority value the tenets of deeper learning for their children, even if they don’t use that term. They are frustrated that the system does not match with their hopes and dreams for their kids.  What if Ben Sasse could help lead a real revolution that focused on providing schools of deeper learning for all American kids? The good news, and core thesis of Moving the Rock is, that we actually don’t need senators to lead the way; we just need them to not get in the way.  Having said that, some focus in Washington on deeper learning as opposed to test-based learning sure would be nice!

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My next post will dig into the other side of Sasse’s arguments, entire trains of which, with all due respect, are myopic, inwardly focused, and lacking in empathy with large swathes of America as it is today, not as it was two and a half centuries ago.  America is not Nebraska, any more than it is suburban California.  His experiences and my experiences are but narrow slices of the American experience, and solutions cannot ignore that. Sen. Sasse will likely disagree with much of the next post (though I’m sure I will never know!), but at least in him I can hope there is willingness to debate the real problems, not to only push rhetoric that resonates with a voting base.

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