Book Reviews, Education, Institutions

How the Admissions Office Ruins Our Kids

July 29, 2021

Matt Feeney’s fine book, Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, explores what happens when families allow the heartless world into their haven. Most upper-class parents want kids to fit into American society and to have opportunities to excel. This means competing in club sports, mastering college admissions, and being in the right schools from an early age. Feeney shows, through a blend of studies and stories, how these seemingly sensible goals transform parenting into a rat race. Defending the family requires the rejection of these upper-middle-class ways. Are status-hungry parents willing to make the sacrifices?

Family life among the upper classes (i.e., uppers) differs markedly from married life among the lower classes. Among uppers, 85% of children live with their biological parents while only 30% in the lowest income quintile do. Twice as many marriages of college-educated spouses last until death as do those without college (80% to 40%). It is tempting to follow F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and say that the rich are different because they have more money. There is much more to it. Cultural mores tighten the uppers’ grip on family life. Shame attaches to abandoning children. Honor attaches to ways of raising children. Kids are less likely to succeed without two involved parents prodding and pushing. Thus arises the unique culture of competitive child-raising among the uppers. Not committed to marriage as such, uppers are committed to “striving together,” as Feeney calls it.

To parent is to choose. What will guide the choice? Work your way backward from what it takes to get into the Ivies and you are “striving together.” Not everyone will go to the Ivies of course.  Some will settle for honors colleges at state schools or lesser private schools.  But families will strive to ensure that their children are ready to be in the elite.  College is the ticket. And admissions departments will determine what parents will have to get their children to do and be in order to get through. Admissions departments set the agenda for parents. Thus “striving together” means farming out the ends and means of education to admissions offices. The problem for parenting is that admissions offices are less interested in healthy families than they are in their institution’s reputation.

The old system was the world of warfare without gunpowder. Students took the SAT. They had a high school grade point average. They applied to schools that seemed interesting and affordable, thinking that their future would be relatively open regardless of where they went to school. A good woman and a decent enough education later, one could earn a good living. Childhood and high school were free from worry about college admissions. I remember opening up my admissions envelope to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and saying “I’m in at the Harvard of the Chippewa Valley.”

That small-time ridicule of my state school alma mater contains the germ of a new ethic. What if podunk state schools are not good enough for my children? What if my children must be among America’s elite? What if I have Brown or Hamilton College in mind or, hands to the chest in reverence, Harvard? Then I am going to have to do things very differently. And don’t I owe it to my children to give them every opportunity to be among the elite in the most powerful country on earth? I will then organize my family as a little platoon. We are going to strive together into the Ivies! This little platoon will not resist the dominant culture, but conform to its demands.

The fall of the ancient regime of college admissions gave rise to a new regime of parenting. It started with SAT prep courses. That takes time and money. It extended to an advanced placement regime in the high schools. That too takes time and money because one’s grades could not suffer despite the heavier load. But those changes were trifling add-ons to the old regime. The new admissions regime is holistic, and what really transformed the system was the opening up of admissions to all. What appears as universal emancipation is really universal weakness and abasement, as every applicant finds himself in a sea of equally capable competitors: “People rise above prior constraints, thanks to new information and other tools, only to discover they now inhabit a rarefied, denuded landscape filled with an inconveniently large number of people like themselves, fit and motivated, well armed for the competitive struggle.” Open choice fosters great competition. Great competition empowers the gatekeepers, to whom the competitors appeal. The more arbitrary the power of gatekeepers, the more the competitors are made subject to their whims.

Toward what end are you pushing your children? Your parenting style and ambitions depend on how you answer this profound, but often unasked question. Most uppers, presumably, just slide into successful social reproduction.

Suddenly parenting, especially from moms, became much more important and intentional. Parents needed to find a better high school. Applicants had to be “leaders” and “well-rounded” or talented. They had to show that they “fit” among the class that the admissions department was curating so carefully. “Eager, anxious, ambitious kids, hearing of the latest behavioral and character traits favored by admissions people, will do their best to affect or adopt those traits.” You want an angel who spends all winter bringin’ the homeless blankets and dinner? That is what they will affect to be. You want to hear about someone’s authentic self? She will hire an essay coach to help her discover and describe her authentic self—or at least authentically conjure up the self that admissions directors are looking for. Colleges set mere performance standards, since they cannot see into an applicant’s soul.

Lately, emphasis in the college admissions process has left the once highly coveted “leadership” quality behind for a new, more intrusive standard. A coalition of high-end colleges, as Feeney relates, want to ensure that “young people become more generous and humane.” How? Admissions will be guided by “assessing ethical engagement and contributions to others” and by the student’s participation in “service that develops gratitude and a sense of responsibility for the future.” Activities and essays to match these ambitions show, Feeney argues, how “there is no limit to how far the admissions process should reach into the lives of applicants and their families.” Going to college to master a craft or learn something about the world no longer defines the experience. Applicants must pay fealty to this new moral ethic, one probably put in the service of a woke ideological agenda (though Feeney does not dwell on that possibility). College admissions is a new soulcraft providing “disciplinary molding of preferred selves.” A mere test and a grade point average cannot reengineer the person. But holistic admissions can. The trend to drop the SAT from consideration in admissions is the Saratoga of this revolution.

A new proposed extension of holistic admissions is to begin college application in the ninth grade so that students do not feel rushed to catalogue all their doings during their high school junior years. This corrupt and corrupting process will shape the kid’s entire high school experience. “Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do.” This is the revolution’s Yorktown.

This focus on college admissions illustrates Feeney’s broader insights. Many parenting priorities among the upper-middle class include self-imposed competitive regimes that end up limiting parental control. Participation in athletic clubs calls forth time, regimentation, and almost endless resources, all for the purpose of being seen. The joys of sport are sacrificed for “development” and the virtues of “commitment.” Preschool admissions come to look like college admissions. One could add that parenting by zip code shapes lives just as much as access to technology.

Feeney’s every insight contains an accusation and a warning, though he is quite gentle in relating both. Toward what end are you pushing your children? Your parenting style and ambitions depend on how you answer this profound, but often unasked question. Most uppers, presumably, just slide into successful social reproduction.

Feeney’s sundry suggestions concern how to make the family, once again, a haven in this new competitive world. It is a counsel to chill out. Perhaps one could try not caring whether one’s child goes to the Ivies or to college at all. A good life, after all, involves much more than exercising power as a member of America’s elite. State schools are not really that different than these others anyway. Perhaps one could play sports for recreation or as an end in itself. Sports can also keep kids out of trouble. (I say this as someone who had two children play club basketball from the fifth grade on.) Perhaps one could try to isolate one’s children from the corrosive effects of our competitive age for longer so that they find room in their hearts and minds for love, virtue, and wisdom. There is still space to do this in America, and self-conscious parents should use it.

It is much easier to chill out if one rejects the mores of America’s elite, to be sure. “If getting into the best possible college is not that important, then children and parents . . . can address [college admissions’] disciplinary tasks, and all the prior adaptations in their children’s lives, in a less agreeable, more rebellious spirit.” Many parents, adopting conventional standards, go along and get along, but experience a kind of misery as they do it. They will until the nature of America’s elite changes. Here’s hoping that Feeney’s fine book can act as a catalyst for a better revolution.

Originally published by Law & Liberty on July 29, 2021.

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