Ben was wildly charming and charismatic before the crowd. My questions tried to get at how he thinks rather than the hot button issues of the day. Here is the transcript, audio, and video. We covered Kansas vs. Nebraska, famous Nebraskans, Chaucer and Luther, unicameral legislatures, the decline of small towns, Ben’s prize-winning Yale Ph.d thesis on the origins of conservatism, what he learned as a university president, Stephen Curry, Chevy Chase, Margaret Chase Smith, and much more.
Here is one bit from Ben:
Neverland and Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing. Perpetual adolescence is the bad thing.
Adolescence is special. We need to figure out how to use adolescence; it’s a means to an end. So that’s what the book’s about.
I am an Augustinian in my anthropology, but Rousseau is a romantic. I think he’s wrong about lots and lots and lots of things, but I think he’s really, really smart. You have to engage him, and you have to engage people who have ideas that are different than yours because you may ultimately be converted to their view, and you need to encounter things that are big and challenging and threatening to your worldview. Or you may sometimes come to believe you’re right and be able to respond to the counterarguments, while your argument will be better. You’ll grow through it, and you’ll become more persuasive to others through it.
So I think Rousseau’s fundamental anthropological understanding of why we feel that things are broken in our soul is, he’s got a reason to blame society for everything we feel is wrong in the world, and I think there’s a lot of brokenness deep inside all of us, and so, that’s the Augustinian versus Rousseauvian sense of what’s wrong.
But I think the Emile is brilliant, both because it forces me to wrestle with ideas that I don’t agree with, or mostly don’t agree with, but I think it’s also just an incredibly good read.
Then there was this:
COWEN: …Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.
SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.
COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.
COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.
You’ll have to read the whole thing to see where Ben took that line of inquiry, his answer was excellent.