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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Ben Sasse's Fantasy America

Bootstraps and "kids these days" all in one very calculated op-ed.

July 30, 2017




Senator Ben Sasse and I grew up at about the same time in different places – him Plainview, Nebraska, me the north suburbs of Chicago – but we both had parents who believed in the importance of work.

As we found out in Senator Sasse’s New York Times op-ed about the shortcomings of “kids these days” and the beneficial effects of work, particularly manual labor, Sasse spent his summer break in 1985 (when he was 13-years-old) detasseling corn, and by his account it did him some good. “We would get home covered in nasty rashes, caked in mud and bone-tired. I’d go to bed in the late afternoon and sleep straight through till the alarm sounded again, for weeks on end.”

We had country clubs rather than corn fields, so the summer I was fourteen, all five foot one of me started caddying. If I doubled, the bags totaled 70% of my bodyweight. Sasse doesn’t mention the rest of his teenage employment history, but in addition to caddying, at one time or another, I had the following job titles: lawn mower, custodian, pool cleaner, retail clerk, camp counselor, and inside mail handler for the United States Postal Service.

A child of privilege, I was allowed to keep all of my earnings and have the passbook savings account booklet somewhere to prove it.

I learned a lot of things on those jobs. For example, after you’ve scrubbed the pool bottom with muriatic acid, make sure to rinse it really really well before washing it with chlorine bleach because acids and bases don’t mix, or rather, they do mix into a noxious green cloud.

I also learned that when your pool cleaning crewmate asks if you want to “blaze up” on the way to the job, saying yes may drop a pleasant sheen over your day, but there may be consequences. (See: Green cloud.)

Mostly I learned that manual labor is both physically taxing while rarely being “mindless.” My mindlessness is what created the green cloud. Similar mindlessness in mail sorting almost sent all of Allstate’s corporate mail to A.C. Nielsen.

For me, work had all the salutary effects Sasse outlines, and there’s nothing objectionable about any of his urging for kids to not only work, but also experience travel, and read literature in order to build empathy. It all sounds like a blueprint for the middle class upbringing that sends a kid from Northeast Nebraska to Harvard, Oxford, Yale, and the United States Senate (Sasse’s impressive trajectory). But reading Senator Sasse’s paean to youthful labor also had me thinking about the dangers of imposing the conditions of the past on the present.

Sasse is concerned that the lack of youthful character-building experiences is turning out helpless and passive young adults. When Sasse was President at Midland University, he reports how “Over and over, faculty members and administrators noted how their students’ limited experience with hard work made them oddly fuzzy-headed when facing real-world problems rather than classroom tests.”

I do not know about what’s going on at Midland University, but it is very convenient of them to act like perfect generational props for the benefit of Sasse’s op-ed. I also do not know how Senator Sasse and the Midland faculty could so easily draw their conslusions that the fuzzy-headedness was somehow because of a lack of experience with hard work. For example, how certain is Senator Sasse that the students haven't been - to use a term that was out-of-date even when I was in college - blazing up?

In the battle of the anecdotes, I have spent seventeen years at four different higher education institutions and noticed no such fuzzy-head related work problems.

But I have seen students work, and moving beyond anecdote, depending on the source, somewhere between 70 and 80% of college students work during the semester. Forty-percent work more than 30 hours per week. 

Living in Charleston, I cannot go to a restaurant without seeing a student working as a host or server. They are nannies and grocery checkers and landscapers and baristas and retail salespeople. If the College of Charleston suddenly disappeared and took all the students who work with it, I sometimes think the food and beverage industry in town would grind to a halt.

Unfortunately, working that much comes at a price, as studies have shown that working too much often leads to lower grades which puts working students at risk for dropping out and non-completion. These are not character building jobs, but necessities in order to pay tuition, secure shelter and eat. 

Even then, for some students, it isn’t enough. Research from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that at two-year institutions, two-thirds of students report being food insecure. Fourteen-percent are “regularly homeless.” 

I am surprised that Sasse did not see more of these working students at Midland University, which draws almost 45% of its students from households in the bottom 60% of income (about $65k/yr).

In a way, I think Sasse’s op-ed is a good illustration of the class divisions that have been exacerbated since he and I were children in the 80’s. Sasse is operating under the assumption that the middle class is still a thing, and that broad swaths of the country have abandoned the old-fashioned values under which he and I were raised. Except Sasse’s criticisms are much more applicable to what Richard Reeves has dubbed the “dream hoarders,” who are rich, not middle class, and who are busy buffing up their kids in order to compete athletically and academically against the other rich kids.[1] 

Sasse grew up the son of a high school teacher/football coach. Once a solid middle-class profession, unless you are already wealthy, now choosing to become a teacher is a veritable guarantee of a lifetime of debt. 

The base salary for a teacher in the Plainview, NE district is $33,625, or about $6000 less than the cost of attendance for a single year at Midland University. With a Masters Degree and 27 or more years of experience, you can top out at $65,064, right around the median household income in Nebraska.

Of course for Sasse to target his critique at the top 10% of income earners who actually reflect the world he describes would risk alienating a good portion of his base when he makes his inevitable run for president.

It’s more politically palatable to pretend that all we need is a little more of that American can-do spirit, even though this is simply not true for huge swaths of Americans who are doing everything they possibly can and yet still fall further behind.

I’m thinking of someone today who wants nothing more than what Ben Sasse’s father had, the chance to teach high school and coach football in Plainview, NE where he will marry and raise his children, one of whom will go on to Harvard and ultimately the United States Senate.

That very modest dream is significantly less possible now than it was forty or sixty years ago. I hope that if and when Ben Sasse occupies the Oval Office he works to restore that promise, rather than offering sermons based in a fantasy that applies to so few.





[1] I can’t resist noting that the activity Sasse sends his 14 year-old daughter off to do, working for a month on a cattle ranch, sounds more like a kind of junior farm veterinarian wannabe camp than the sort of physical labor Sasse describes from his own youth. It’s not even clear if his daughter was paid. By the description in the original, it’s dubious as to whether or not her work was “necessary” in the way we think of work. It’s as though Sasse is very much the same as those he criticizes in making sure his children have the “right” experiences.


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