Little Platoons

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Shortly after the Industrial Revolution began plucking workers from their ancestral villages and installing them in factory towns, a certain bargain was struck. The family would need to be mobile and smaller now—just mom, dad and the kids, most likely—but it would be sacrosanct, a haven in the heartless world of urban anonymity and mechanized production. If public life was to be marked by fierce competition and creative destruction, at least in the family home you would be free, safe, independent.

In “Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age,” Matt Feeney outlines a troubling deviation from this bargain, a growing incursion of market forces into the haven of the family home. Mr. Feeney’s compact and compellingly argued book, which grew out of a 2016 article he wrote for the New Yorker, takes its title from Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” There, counseling loyalty to one’s closest community, Burke writes that “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” Mr. Feeney suggests that our little platoons are being diverted from this function and transformed from schools of public affection to weapons of public competition.

Mr. Feeney points to several breach points. Tech gadgets isolate us and prey on the idiosyncrasies of our brains. All-consuming youth sports fashion not just soccer players but entire soccer families. In the ambitious, competitive environments that Mr. Feeney describes, year-round sports clubs and camps promise not joyful play or healthy exertion but “development” and preparation for advancement to “the next level”—where the good, choiceworthy thing is always a few hard steps away. If there is a terminus to this process, it is admission to a good college, which is, for many of the parents Mr. Feeney describes, the all-encompassing goal of child-rearing.

As a result, the most powerful and insidious interlopers in Mr. Feeney’s story turn out to be elite college-admissions officers. These distant commissars quietly communicate a vision of the 18-year-old who will be worthy of passing beneath their ivied arches, and “eager, anxious, ambitious kids,” the author tells us, upon “hearing of the latest behavioral and character traits favored by admissions people, will do their best to affect or adopt these traits.”

Admissions officers exercise increasing power to shape the lives of both the children and their families. Their preferences hold so much weight that, more than being merely instrumental, they create the “vague assumption, largely unquestioned, that a central ethical duty of American teenagers is to make themselves legible to a bureaucratic process and morally agreeable to its vain and blinkered personnel.”

A hypercompetitive marketplace like this is driven by fear, Mr. Feeney tells us, and, “if, thanks to this fear, people come to believe that a successful life requires passage through a super-selective college, and if such colleges use the leverage this gives them to require sheepish levels of agreeableness in their successful applicants, then agreeable, sheepish college students are what you’re going to get.”

. . . .

He tells us of studies showing that attending a second-tier college isn’t nearly as detrimental to one’s earning potential as most people would believe. Referring to the work of the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, Mr. Feeney writes that “selective colleges don’t turn kids into bigger earners. They choose the kids who are more likely to be bigger earners.” Much of what the college-admissions process does is filter the extremely talented from the very talented. If your child is one or the other, chances are their professional performance will reflect it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG will opine that, other than, perhaps, helping a recent college graduate to obtain his/her first job out of college, attending a “name” college is probably not that important for the life success of 99.99% of the populace of the United States. (PG is not inclined to associate with the .01% that are not included in his statistic following a few encounters with such people.) (Uncharacteristically, PG won’t opine on what works and doesn’t in other nations.)

PG attended a “name” college (not Ivy League) and so did Mrs. PG.

For PG, he suspects that his college may have helped him overcome a very non-commercial major to get his first job. (Although the person who decided to extend him his first job offer also asked for PG’s SAT scores, which would have been the same regardless of where he had attended college.)

After that, PG doesn’t recall ever being asked about his formal education by anyone.

It also didn’t take long for PG to encounter very intelligent and competent people who had graduated from colleges he had never heard of or who had not graduated from college at all.

And everyone knows idiots who attended “name” colleges.

PG suspects that one of the main drivers of the hypercompetitive marketplace identified in the OP is insecure parents who want to drop college names when speaking about their children. PG has known a few parents of that sort and has not observed that behavior to be terribly beneficial for their children.

2 thoughts on “Little Platoons”

  1. When I run into people telling me that they are sending their kids to Harvard, I always say, “Oh, that’s too bad. Not everyone can go to UNM.”

    I worked with a number of Harvard graduates at the Department. None of them could walk and chew gum at the same time.

    I always remind people that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are Harvard drop outs. That they were smart enough to see that their future was better without the Harvard degree.

  2. Hi PG,

    Going sideways for a minute, did your “name” college also become your “law school” too? The reason I ask is that in Canada, as an aside, we tend to treat “college” in many parts of the country as being for technical studies, while “university” is for academics. Some provinces don’t adhere to that snobbery, but some do. So when US says “college” we translate that to university; if they say “community college” we semi-translate that to “community college”. However, given the size of the population, and limited funding, we have a clearly defined set of “undergraduate” universities to apply to law schools from, and a small set of colleges.

    So, it’s an identifiable “draw pool” and an identifiable list of law schools to which to apply to. Very few of our “universities” would fall to a C-list status, maybe a couple minor ones. Most are either solid B-list with a few A-list, and even the A-list changes depending on which discipline you were in.

    But when it comes to law schools, they do tend to look at where you went to school and the grades you got in your undergrad when considering you for law school application. And since their is a limited number of law schools, and they DO tend to have A, B and C-lists, a “name” school as you say can make a difference when you’re applying for law school.

    Soooo, that’s a lot of context to ask generally if while “no one” cared, did the law school care?

    Since I’m asking, I’ll share my story. I grew up blue-collar in a relatively blue-collar town, and didn’t think I had the $$ to go to a big school away and pay for living expenses etc., particularly when my home town had Trent University which likes to bill itself as Canada’s Outstanding Small University. Which, admittedly it is, but doesn’t ring “alumni support”, does it? When I was looking at law school after my undergrad, I knew that I didn’t have all that lovely extracurricular stuff you put in your college application essay in the US. What I had was my grades (80%, A-, Dean’s Honour List) and whatever my LSAT score would be. I didn’t want ANYONE looking at my application, I wanted the numbers to rule. 80% would make me competitive at every one of the 16 law schools in the country. At the time of application, I applied to 6 not knowing what would happen with the LSAT. I busted my butt studying for that, and I’m good at that kind of thing. I managed a 99th percentile (47/48 at the time). Which meant ANYWHERE I applied would accept me without even opening my file. Soooo, my school didn’t really matter. I had a competitive GPA and a first in LSAT. But I know others who were not so fortunate, and were in the consideration pile and on waiting lists for their school of choice, and while not formally “weighted”, their undergrad DID play a factor. Many graduate schools are like that around the world, I know, so not surprising that Cdn law school was too. We can overcome it, as I did, but it’s there.

    Anyway…I’m now in a hiring position and doing mentorship for people applying. Nobody cares WHERE you did the degree; they only care that you have one and they can assume that you know how to do basic research, can write a paragraph or two, and understand the basics of statistics usually.

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