63: Little Platoons with Matt Feeney

Play episode
Hosted by
Will Jarvis

In this episode, we talk with Matt Feeney about his new book, Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age. We cover the insanity of competitive college admissions, Operation Varsity Blues, the atomization of modern American life, why the nuclear family is important, and what policies are essential for supporting families.

Show notes:
Little Platoons by Matt Feeney.

Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett.

Increasingly Competitive College Admissions, much more than you wanted to know by Scott Alexander.

Operation Varsity Blues

Matt’s New Yorker Article


Will Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse in the past towards a better, more definite vision of the future. I’m your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

Well, Matt, how are you doing tonight? I’m doing well. I’m doing well. Awesome. Well, Matt, thank you so much for hopping on. Before we really jump into a lot of questions, could you give us kind of a quick bio and some of the big ideas you’re interested in?

Matt Feeney 1:00
My big my bio would, I was born in Detroit. I grew up in Detroit in a small town outside of Ann Arbor called Chelsea went to Central Michigan University for my undergraduate degree, took a solid five years, five and a half years to get out. I’ve actually made my way to PhD program in political philosophy at Duke and got a got a PhD at Duke in kind of modern German critical philosophy. And, and we live to DC work in DC for a while moved to California in 2004, where I have, you know, poked around in various angles, the writing business since then, and wrote a book that got published this this this past spring. That’s excellent.

Will Jarvis 1:48
The book little platoons Can you talk about like, where the idea for the book came from originally?

Matt Feeney 1:53
Alright, so there’s a couple different answers that question that kind of the, I suppose to go back to your question about what big ideas I’m interested in? That my way of addressing your most recent question with regard to that one was that is that I’m interested in the way that I’m using the way that institutions, large institutions kind of adapt to and grow from our output as modern active self empowered agents, and how the how are our agency are, are striving as selves, ends up empowering institutions at our expense. So that is the that is the kind of the general theoretical kind of reflex that I bring to the, to the enterprise, the book itself be so and so. And I suppose I brought that reflex to the article that became the book, I wrote an article in 2016. For the New Yorker online about the college admissions process, when I had not really had a lot of, I’d only had the kind of parental dread about the process, my oldest kid was in fourth grade at the time. And I, so I had, you know, just that kind of general parental anxiety about about the building pressures of academic competition and stuff, but I did not really have any knowledge of the process. But it’s why I was kind of thrown into the, into the, into the project of learning about the college admissions process and finding surprised that it really kind of reaffirmed some of my kind of prior theoretical interests and suspicions regarding the way institutions are happy to lap up are striving efforts as individual selves. And that’s kind of where I, that’s where I took the kind of like I didn’t work in. So when the book kind of was in progress, I kind of work backwards from my kind of understanding of the admissions process to see whether or not a kind of similar dynamic to that which I described in my original article could be identified in other areas of other kind of stages in the lives of parents.

Will Jarvis 4:00
Excellent, excellent. I love that. Oh, that lens, you’re looking through the college admissions process, it’s bananas, it’s bananas when I went through, but it seems to have gotten much worse. I went to a state school, I went to a good state school, still state school, UNC Chapel Hill, which now has an acceptance rate. That’s the same as Stanford 20 years ago. And I just look at that. I’m like, What is going on? Yeah, the Harvard acceptance rate was 90%. And like, 1940, if you could pass a test you could get in. And now you know, it’s like, it’s insanely competitive. What do you think? What has changed? You know, what has changed in our society that this has become more of a that it’s such a big problem?

Matt Feeney 4:41
Well, one of the things that has happened, I think, is that just our understanding of, of Well, our understanding of the importance of college has changed, the access to colleges has changed. And the access to information about colleges has changed and What you leaving aside Harvard’s Harvard’s 90% acceptance rate and before World War Two, just the, the, the college market used to be much more fragmented. So people went nearby home. And, and so in and as a result that you know schools had to schools were defined largely by you know, where they were in perhaps the kind of religious tradition that they that they expressed that you know that they were kind of charged oftentimes charged with furthering in their you know in their pedagogy and increasingly as as the kind of as the net after the GI Bill and you know, in this in then I think two inflection points one is the GI Bill and then one is the one is the early 1990s into kind of the kind of this the heated up admissions competition from there. The the college market became kind of nationalized, especially in recent years and so UNC now, before when I was in I was in grad school in the 90s. And in in Durham. Yeah, you see was a university it was in North Carolina University, right. It was a school that was it was identify with North p, the state of Oregon, I understood. Actually, the time I understood that that was hard because it was so popular for in State students, because there was a preference for institutions, it was quite hard for out of state students to get into UNC Chapel Hill. In fact, one of the you know, there was the back and forth between Duke and UNC, one of the things that you heard was that it was actually harder for out of state students to get into UNC than it was to get into Duke at the time. But for in State students, it was it was a different story. But even in the in the 20, some years since then, the college, the college, matriculation market has become nationalized. And so students, a student in California kind of cast and about looking to you know, no one wanting to know where to go to college is concerned about where a given college not where you know, where college is or what it teaches. But where it exists on the rankings, and there’s one ranking right, there’s one list. And every everyone every college has had placed on that list. And so your first choice might be Occidental College or something like that, given your sense of what you can get into we’re still very selective school. And your second choice might be UNC Chapel Hill, very different school, right? It’s one’s a little school, one’s a big school. But you know, they’re right next to each other in the rankings. I’m not they may, or they were there, right? Less so but the so the the overarching consideration for kids, for kids who kind of occupy this stratum of competitive admissions, competitive, high school, high school students, the the overarching criterion is where on the ranking the school is, and so, you know, if you’re going to if you’re going to go to the also tuition wise, what’s the difference between if you’re gonna go out? If you’re, if you’re gonna go to a private college, you know, what’s the difference between going to that or an out of state state school, right, you’re going to be paying roughly the same tuition. And so the, the price so so one, the process become nationalized, and so UNC kind of like occupant, you just by virtue of where it was, before the intensification happened, you once he occupied this somewhat privileged space, it was it kind of, you know, even when I was kind of thinking about when I was an undergraduate, I thought, well, I hadn’t really given much thought to where I went to college, because I had really put very little effort into studying as a high school student, right. But then like, a few years into college, maybe I could go somewhere else. And I thought about UNC, it’s like a school. So it had even for me in Michigan at the time, it had a kind of profiles and I school. So once this sorting happens, once the rankings get get, you know, made official, and people start paying a lot of attention to them, you know, UNC have an occupy in an advantageous place in the rankings. And so it got, you know, its position in the kind of national rankings got solidified. And, and those rankings tend to be, you know, they schools move up and down a little bit, but not very much. And so their position gets so you, you so immediately this, they’re, you know, whatever the the niceness of the UNC campus, and all that stuff translates into a saleable national profile, and it becomes a national, an object of national emissions competition, just like all the other colleges, and, and so it’s just so so that’s one thing. I think the fact that the college market is becoming nationalized, and so kids from all over the country are applying to UNC. But the other thing is, there’s only so many kids so how is it that all of these admissions rates are going down too much? Because they’re all applying to so many colleges, you apply to a lot more

so kids play to a lot more colleges. I there’s statistics I cite in the book, but something like the number of kids who who I can’t really remember but the number of kids who apply to like more than eight schools has just you know, it’s a default not right you’re if you’re a competitive If you’re like serious about getting into a good school, you’re going to apply to eight or 10 colleges, if not more. And so there’s, you know, so the schools themselves are swamped with, you know, effectively superfluous applications, because because the kids are all going to get in somewhere, right, right. But nonetheless, the way that this translates in the rankings and the way these rankings Trent, you know, kind of like are, are absorbed within the kind of the the competitive the population of competitive high schoolers. It just kind of get everything just kind of takes on the status, this this status of extremely high stakes, like the difference between these different colleges, the decisions, and so it comes to matter, it’s an inflated because of the, because of the, the superfluous applying that’s done. It’s an inflated, it’s an inflated the overall number of applicants, and that, you know, isn’t gotcha, less, the proliferation of these miniscule acceptance rates is enough to give everybody the creeps, you know, everybody’s freaking out. And so, so yeah, so it’s a, it’s, I think that those two things mainly became a nationalized process. So schools, like the best schools were started from the because it’s really a top 20% of colleges where the red this level of that have become, over this period of time, the top 20% of colleges that become more selective, and the rest have either stayed the same pretty much or become less selective. And so it’s really this kind of this admissions competition is really focused on this top 20% of colleges. So if you so when this big sort happened, you were lucky enough to have been kind of hyped up into the into the top fifth, then you’re one of the schools that kids are fighting to get into now.

Will Jarvis 11:38
Gotcha. It’s kind of this flight to quality. Yeah, thing.

Matt Feeney 11:43
Once the, in once the idea of quality, that it’s the ones that which which, which we understand in terms of exclusivity. Once that kind of like percolated through the the application population, the African population, then it becomes a kind of kind of necessary thing to bow down to, you know, kids have to observe this where they feel they have to observe this because because the difference between going to a name school and a no name school is perceived to be a, you know, a categorical Relay for writing, as well.

Will Jarvis 12:16
Do you view you know, education, especially undergraduate education, primarily, like a signaling something? Or do you think like, people are getting like real different levels of human capital, when they go to these different schools? What do you think?

Matt Feeney 12:30
It’s really hard to? It’s really hard to tell? I think it’s, you know, obviously, I think that the appeal of the schools, people aren’t going well, you know, it’s, you’re right, the suspicion that you’re, that you’re that you’re expressing is, I think it completely valid one, which is that it is signaling, right there, you can get a good education anywhere. I think in my, my book, I talk about how I feel like, simply by changing my major from business to English, I’ll suddenly find myself getting this great education, you know, I’m like, reading these great books. And, you know, reading is immersed in English poetry, like why, you know, I didn’t always be a bit of an idiot, so I didn’t really make the most of it. But But I, you know, I did you know, what, I got, I got I got a pretty good education for, you know, center machinery, who the hell knows about Central Michigan University? Right. But it was a pretty good education. And it’s and so I think a lot of it is what you study and you know, if you have good relationships with teachers, there’s a lot of ways in which the, you know, the kind of work incentive structure at elite universities selects against quality teaching. Right. And so, you know, there’s so yeah, so you can get one yes, it’s signaling into you can get a great education, a lot different places, you can get a crappy education at a really good school, and, you know, but nonetheless, you got a credential. Right? Right. Right.

Will Jarvis 13:46
That makes sense. And people really want the credential. It’s been my sense that things, you know, things were fairly competitive when I was a kid, you know, like, you know, parents were thinking about, you know, God, like, Where can I get a kid go to school, and there’s this push, you know, make sure you take the AP classes, and you play a sport and you get to do all these things. But it seems to be a bit ratcheted up to 11 now, so I saw a college prep, you know, pre k around, it’s opened up around me, which is just bananas. We had Kelly Starrett, who’s a he’s a well known physical therapist on the show while back and he was talking about some unrelated things, but he was he started me he mentioned to me that the rates of overuse injuries he sees among kids now has just skyrocketed. So you know, they’ve got like they blown out their shoulder from pitching too much on travel baseball teams and, and things just it seems like things have have really escalated. Is that your sense? Yeah, well, first

Matt Feeney 14:39
of all, let me let me kind of point out that I actually owned Kelly spirits book. Oh, really? My brother’s a CrossFit maniac. Oh, nice. And he sent me the book and I also had a physical personal trainer who helped me through an injury who was also like a Davao Taya and so like this, that name that’s kind of like, but But yeah, so in my discussion as of sports, I talked about this about how the, there’s this need for me, first of all, is that the proliferation of these kind of overuse injuries goes hand in hand with, with the over specialization of individual in single sports that kids are kind of getting into at younger and younger ages, now they’re getting into the this over specialization, does not serve like long term prowess in a particular sport. But what it does, what it is guided by is like the short term calculation to parents who are trying to keep their kids in, in a sport, right? And so if you just say, Well, you know, I really want my son to play soccer for five months of the year, four months of the year, and then let him play basketball or other sports. Well, he comes back to soccer, you know, eight months later, and he’s gonna be at a disadvantage, because he has not been gaining the foot skills that the other kids have no, no, right, whether or not this actually matters over the long run is you know, debatable, but, so, so. So, the system, competitive system of club sports that we have, select, first of all it selects incentivizes the club’s themselves to kind of go all out to have a kind of do observe this year round schedule, and to have into it, you know, which then kind of encourages kids to commit to a single sport rather than sports. And it likewise incentivizes parents then to, because the, the need to kind of stay in the system is that kind of short term need. And once you’re out, it’s really hard to get back in, like, if you get stuck, you know, skip soccer for two years, and he comes back, well, he’s gonna look like a kid who skips soccer. And in the clubs don’t want that, because clubs are all they want to be able to present themselves as winning clubs, to the parents who are competitive minded. And so the whole thing selects for these short term calculations. And one of the consequences of it is that these kids end up deciding, well, I got to commit to a single sport, and I got to play the sport year round. And as a result, you, they end up one, oh, they end up with these overuse injuries, because they’re just, you know, they’re, they’re, they’re jamming on their knees or their shoulders or whatever. For for, you know, the better part of a year. And two, they’re not building up a kind of overall physiological balance that comes with playing a lot of sports and stressing your body in different ways and opposing ways and coming up with a kind of overall physical resiliency.

Will Jarvis 17:27
Definitely devil Yeah, it seems like it’s like this good heart law, good hearts law problem, where they’re just optimizing on, you know, what’s the best school and get into? I guess, so. You’re a parent, right, man? Yeah, I have three kids. Okay. So, you know, what’s your feeling? Like? Like, what is the, you know, when you look at other parents like, like, what do you see is the primary driver? Is it like some status anxiety thing? Is it a feeling that your kid might drop out of the middle class, if they don’t get into one of these prestigious schools? Like, what do you think the primary driver is?

Matt Feeney 17:58
Well, I mean, I used to there’s a kind of, kind of long term background driver is this latter thing that you mentioned, which is you’re going to we’re worried that our kids are going to have failed lives? You right? Yeah. Like not going to be up for competing in the knowledge economy or whatever the you know, the our understanding of what’s and so in which is it which is real consideration, I feel like that there is a way in which I talked about this kind of the the nationalization the kind of the homogenization of the college market, right, where there’s a single, a single pyramid that every on and that there’s some, you know, a kind of something similar is really kind of has happened in the economy, and it has happens in people’s perception, the economy, which is that, well, you know, more brains means more money. And so you gotta like, find you so because, you know, you know, tack basically tech and finance kind of sit at the top of these things. And they’re kind of Mafi, quantitative pursuits. And so the kids who are kind of good at math, or whatever, so, so parents kind of go into this process, well, Jesus, my kid, you know, like a math genius, is going to be good enough in these things. And so, so. So that’s kind of one of the things that the perception that the economy is kind of requires us. Not just a particular, but if it requires a particular basket of skills, or rewards, or a basket of skills to be, you know, much more than, than other skills. And so, so that’s the kind of bat background thing, it’s just generally that we live in a transformed world where brains were going to where the ability to do to exhibit to improve a sort of IQ, or as you know, by way of, you know, like what colleges you use, is, is perceived to be extremely, extremely important. So that’s the kind of the background consideration. And then kind of like in the more retail level, the level of individual psychology. I mean, one of the I just I put a lot of emphasis on you can call it state, you can call it kind of status games and that kind of thing, but it gives a kind of invidious spin on it in a way and that we’re all I like to kind of point out that we’re all kind of status conscious.

Will Jarvis 19:59
Everyone has no doubt.

Matt Feeney 20:01
So by status games, we simply mean that people kind of occupy social space and kind of like and do it in this kind of comparative way. And wonder if part one of the ways that they wonder if they’re doing things right is, is by seeing what other people are doing. But then in seeing what other people are doing, you start to wonder whether or not I’m doing enough, right. Especially with this kind of, like, background consideration of kind of like, you know, success and in the competitive economy and that kind of thing.

Will Jarvis 20:24
Definitely, definitely. I also get the feeling. Did you see the college admissions documentary? Well, I

Matt Feeney 20:30
assume you’ve heard about I mean, that the operation Varsity Blues,

Will Jarvis 20:35
yes. Operation article, I wrote an article for The New Yorker online about that, about that. Awesome, awesome, I have to read it. I may actually read I read the New Yorker. And that’s maybe where I first heard about it. Not knowing that, but it was interesting to me that so many people wanted to get into the University of Southern California, which is it’s a good school, not amazing school and, and that led me to believe Okay, are these people like hang out at the country club? You know, you want to tell your friend that you know, my kid also gotten to the universe Southern California and you know, that’s like, but that’s interesting.

Matt Feeney 21:08
So clearly like this was not that that whole thing that scandal with the kids in the in the in the celebrity stuff, it’s not true, it was not driven by the kids it was driven by the parents. Exactly. And and and so it was exactly as you say, it was like, you know, like in this milieu to be able to to stay and to say that your kid goes to USC, you know, it’s kind of big stuff. If you’re, if you’re hanging around the Hollywood Airheads, you know and you got your you got your kid into into USC, you will say something and one of the I actually read something kind of interesting. It’s actually somewhat poignant about that about how about how, I don’t know if it’s both Lori Loughlin and who the other one was? I can’t remember. Yeah, well, but whether they both went to went to college or not, but Lori Loughlin apparently did not go to college. And so like this idea, so the idea of having a kid, so even though she was, you know, kind of she was married to a rich guy, and she was a successful actress, whatever. The idea is, nonetheless, she felt haunted by this kind of, like, you know, highly American kind of, like, set of standards for what, what makes for a kind of respectable bourgeois life, and it is going college. And so she was, you know, really intent on getting your kid into college as was. So we’re going to speak to kind of in this case, it bespeaks a kind of, kind of, you know, a void spiritual void in the, in the, you know, or just a feel of kind of comparative disadvantage and in, in parents like that, but But in general, it’s just, yeah, you got, you know, the you know, they’re, I mean, it maybe it’s, it is bragging rights, I’m sure, I mean, I, I see the bumper stickers around, you know, although nowadays when I see bumper stickers that say, I’ve been what I wear, my wife and I take a lot of take walks up in the hills, we I go past a car that has like, Middlebury and NYU stick or something like that, and I just oh, my gosh, me, man. And no wonder you’re driving a 15 year old Volvo.

Will Jarvis 23:06
Yep, a year ago, because you’re paying tuition.

Matt Feeney 23:09
Yeah. But no, that’s always the you know, that. That’s, that’s, you know, it’s it’s a, it’s a, it’s a constant consideration, I think for a lot of people.

Will Jarvis 23:21
Definitely. Yeah. I’m curious, you know, what’s, what’s to be done? You know, there’s a couple different levels, just like, if you’re some a kid applying to college, and then like a parent, and then and then the broader policy level? Do you have any thoughts here? Like, is there any way to escape this kind of morass?

Matt Feeney 23:41
You know, it’s really I mean, you know, perhaps as something of a cop out, I mean, I come as a political philosophy student, in a certain way I wrote this book is is a book of love, but not and not just as a book of philosophy, but also you know, like, my kind of intellectual formation was more kind of right of center kind of conservative, yeah, conservative, as we say, Now, conservative spaces, but and so and so, when I, you know, and I started thinking about this kind of like, goes for a long kind of, you know, say let us a philosophical evolution, but I was, um, I started, I started to think about what you know, yeah, the one way to do you know, one way to fix this problem is to is to, you know, have a different society, right. But me, the men and kind of like thinking into kind of like a set of a set of policy, preferences that are common among are traditionally common among among conservatives, people who otherwise afford to be kind of interested in family, pro family and outlook, in that like, my point is that the kind of highly individualistic, the highly individualistic, highly competitive nature of American society, which is your things that have traditionally been been celebrated within about America, within conservative circles, that that these things, you know, the way these things, play, out at a certain point in the intensification of this competition, the way these things play out is that they actually it actually increases the the D increases the dependency of families and increases and decreases their, their independence and increases their increase their dependency on, you know, highly, highly Well, well placed institutional gatekeepers being the best example. So they have to kind of do what the colleges say if your freedom is highly conditional on what colleges prefer, if what you want is for your kid to compete successfully in this Yes, in this competition, and, and so so that is the kind of so the the kind of the philosophical thrust or the political thrust of the argument is that you will maybe, maybe, you know, the our highly atomized Hobbs in American social terrain is not really very well designed to serve the autonomy of families, that autonomy of families, in fact, would be better served in a more solid eristic kind of social contract of something, you know, you know, it’s a bit of a cliche, but something along kind of Northern or Western European mind something a little bit more social democratic. Yeah, where they’ll feel as if the stakes of success in any particular stage of the competition are not so great that your kids failure beings, it’s the means some kind of mutilated life, some kind of life that, you know, it’s not, it’s not worth living, according to Buddha kind of perspective, you know, and so, that is, what the highest level I think, is like anything, you know, any policies that, that take the stress off of families, that, you know, stronger, stronger safety net, and that those kinds of things in and then on the retail level, you know, I mean, there’s a bunch of things I, you know, I kind of washed my hands of, of kind of giving, or like building a great deal of advice into my book, just because I want one of my kind of argumentative standpoints is that, well, these are all these are kind of this is a collective action problem. These are compounds that are very, very difficult about and so, you know, maybe like, the Crafty parent can figure out a way to do it, while you know, kind of, but while like playing their own game, but that that leaves everybody else, just to scramble after the scraps, you know, and so and so, too, there’s what I mean, there’s, you know, like, I think that, like, it’s good to know exactly what you know, if you’re really gonna freak out about this stuff, it’s good to know exactly what what rides on where your kid goes to school, right, for example, and there’s research to show that really, you know, what matters is not what school your kid, you know, got into, but what your kid is and what your kid is made of, and right, and that will determine the over the long run, you know, with some extent, we may be going to Harvard, you end up networking in a way that, you know, you end up with your interviews at McKinsey, and you end up you know, maybe no one people who get a chance to intern somewhere, you know, important or whatever. But I think for for the most part. So that’s kind of less than one set of kind of economic papers that like who your kid is, matters more than where they went to college. Now, there’s, you know, there’s always going to be kind of, like arguments against that, and there’s interesting conversation. But that’s, that’s one thing, you know, and I hear things also I get, you know, I’ve gotten since the book came out, I’ve had, you know, people who, who kind of argue, you know, kind of like, want to talk about the, you know, different ways of kind of opting out in a manner if you’re familiar with rod Dreher. Yeah, the Benedict option mandate so that people would kind of like pursuing a kind of Benedict.

option, you know, frankly, I’ve always, I mean, I kind of see the appeal of that, and it suits my kind of disposition as a, as a parent and political theorist slash parent that like, yeah, I want to be able to kind of draw the circle around my family as a way that I have to deal with this crap, you know, yeah. But again, you do that, and you still leave, everybody else is still out there, you know, and so it’s gonna, you’re just basically kind of looking out for yourself. And so, so, yeah, so I mean, sure, go ahead and be you know, do the Benedict option if that, you know, if you homeschool your kids and stuff, I’d kind of like that, but but it’s, you know, nonetheless, it leaves the problems on addressed. And so, and so I think that so the problems are largely large scale ones of public policy more than anything. And otherwise, it’s just, you know, it’s just, you’re just people are coming up with differences, but I mean, I’m, I’m happy that people, you know, I’m happy that people in kind of, like reading my book are kind of are able to identify with me the problems I’m writing about and kind of, you know, even if they’re only doing it their own way, are are you recognizing that there’s a problem, they’re feeling it, they’re feeling there’s something wrong?

Will Jarvis 29:53
Yeah. Well, what what I really liked about your book was the framing which I really hadn’t thought of is How, like, you know, the actions of the big universities in this country? They drive like, like the incentives, they create drive everywhere, like all these parents actually, it’s like, you know, I, I don’t know why I thought of it going the other direction as like the parents, right. And it’s a feedback loop right as well. But you know, like, the way they’re super exclusive, you know, like Stanford’s endowments. $23 billion, you know, they haven’t grown the enrollment with the endowment, you know, it’s like, they’re, they’re actively doing things that you know, to maintain that kind of nightclub appeal where it’s just as velvet rope. I I’m curious, you know, it’s funny, we had Tommy causton on the show, he’s one of the costs and brothers of stripe, a big internet payments company is huge billion dollar company that grew up in Ireland and this like, tiny town. And as kids, they were just free to pursue whatever pursuits they thought were interesting, you know, one of them learn Latin, couple of them learn to code and started stripe and did all these great things. And I was just struck by how different that was then American kids growing up here, it’s like, being a person what you want.

Matt Feeney 31:06
Yeah. So that’s it, that’s part of him. This is like, you know, he, it’s this is, I mean, the way I describe it in the book is that it is a kind of an accident of institutional design. It’s kind of like, we had all these colleges, right. And we had all these colleges, that it was awesome. All these colleges, you know, these pastors went out into the landscape, they founded all these colleges in the States, he’s, you know, America’s 50 states creating these land grant institutions, which, you know, the variety is, is fantastic. But at a certain point, you know, it became it just got it got kind of organic, organized into a single thing. Yeah. And so the, so you what was what was kind of great, and about the variety of American institutions got kind of Translated by virtue of, you know, a series of, you know, economic sociological developments. Again, these are I don’t want to like talk about all this is a big one costing around things contributed to this to this process. But the result was that it can in turn, what was what was a a wondrous variety of institutions into a single and exacting status hierarchy that everyone has to kind of like, find the right, you know, the best place on and if you can contrast that the contrast that I can return to it several times in my in the book is with Canada. Right? Well, Canada has like a hammer, you know, like big, giant rock, but entirely respectable. provincial universities, right. Yeah. And people don’t make a rule about it. So there’s so there’s in, in, you know, the University of Toronto is like, the big school in Canada. But it is not, it doesn’t have the same status as a Stanford or Harvard, you know, have you got any? d? Well, that’s cool. I mean, I knew people like I went to grad school with a super smart guy, he was in a Ph. D. program of at Duke in history. And he is he went to University of Western Ontario you ever heard? Will you ever see what it does? It’s a it’s a big school. It’s, it’s a big school, and, you know, or York University, or Queen’s whatever, like these various big schools in Ontario, big public schools. And it’s like, people just don’t make a big deal about which one you went to, um, that just cools things down a lot. I think people figure well, and another thing is that the the competition that the competition that that for us gets, you know, gets pushed down to younger and younger ages, is in candidates captured by the colleges themselves. The competition is among college students, not among fifth graders are better. And, yeah, and so, in that way, you can, you know, the changes your entire orientation to what your what, you know, schooling and life is for, for your, for your young kids.

Will Jarvis 33:54
No doubt. But

Matt Feeney 33:55
yeah, so, I kind of like, you know, I like the idea of like, it’s kind of like, so Ireland, right? So, these kids were not, you know, their parents weren’t freaked out about what college we’re gonna go to, because there’s not, you know, there’s not, it’s, whatever, it’s several, like maybe 200 schools that like ambitious parents are kind of like ranking in their brains and wanting to get their kids into the best one, you know, it all, you know, and also little school, so all this, like, one of the things I talked about in the book is the comparison of the sizes of the entering classes of, you know, you know, University of Toronto, the entering class is like 15,000 requests 15,000 people in, you know, the entering class, like Williams College is like under 1000, you know, and in, and maybe 500, maybe less. And so, so, so, the point I’m making that in that in that little digression is that with, you know, the meaning of a particular college acceptance is so much greater here, the social meaning signals what you can signal with it, whereas Oh, yeah, my kid got into University of Manitoba. Awesome, you know, Yeah, mic to everybody. Everybody. No, doubt it up. Well, it

Will Jarvis 35:06
feels uh, it does feel existential. You know, it’s like if you don’t get the right right degree, it’s a dunce cap or something. And you know, you’ll never be successful. And it’s, it’s quite brutal in the US which I like the Canadian model. That sounds like a much better approach. I’m curious, you mentioned, you know, how atomized us society has gotten? And think about that in the context of the family? Is that something that has gotten worse over time? I know, it feels brutally atomized, just especially with COVID, you know, this has just been accelerated. But is, is that just a feeling I have? Or do you think that’s really the case that that is kind of changed.

Matt Feeney 35:45
I mean, I think that one of the, we, I think going from a kind of one of the kind of assumptions in my book is that one of the, there’s always there’s a kind of double edged sword about just in the kind of availability of information, right, so you got, like, you learn about all kinds of stuff, but you also learn about other people, you learn about what other people are doing. And so because, you know, this, I don’t really go into the Rene Girard kind of the Misa stuff in the book, but I couldn’t, and, you know, and there’s, you know, there’s this sense, just knowing what other people are doing, can it has a tendency to kind of haunt us, right, and so, into, into get into our heads about what what we need to be doing. And, and so the feeling of atomization would given us would naturally follow from this, they kind of just the more kind of information, saturated environment that we kind of swim in these days. And so, so just yeah, so knowing more about colleges, knowing more about other other other parents is just like ways in which this, you know, knowing it, just having this information, kind of like just better our brains constantly, it’s hard not to kind of absorb it as a kind of existential challenge that you have as a parent to kind of like, well Gird your, your children against the war that is, you know, that you are learning is waging out there, on, you know, on the outside that, that the four walls of your house. So, so and that’s kind of at the perceptual level, and, you know, but at the actual objective level of, of society itself, um, there’s a pretty strong case to be made, that the economy has, has changed in a way again, to kind of, to, you know, make middle class lives and more kind of exclusive good, you know, on the, the, you know, college degree. And, and, and not only that the middle class lives in exclusive good, but that the working class live is less, much less, much less creditable, much less respectable than it was in the, you know, 50s, you know, 7080 years ago, because the amount of product that, that the businesses take a, you know, the top level of businesses take is relative to what the workers take is increased. And so, you know, people, you know, it’s working class life is not, I mean, it’s really hard to kind of, with the exception of like, the, you know, certain the manual trades and that, that are particularly remunerative, the, you know, the idea that you can, you know, kind of like angle for a working class life and have a good life, as someone who works with your hands. It’s not very convincing. And so the the man saying, it’s not good, it’s not very convincing, especially to the kind of population of anxious middle class parents, right. So they know that if they’re not, if your kid is not going to be kind of make it into this, this kind of stratum, the self reproducing stratum of middle and upper middle class knowledge workers, then the drop that they make from there is a precipitous drop, that you’ll do anything to keep your kid from experiencing

Will Jarvis 38:55
anything to kind of fall off that cliff. You know, it’s super brutal, super brutal. Kids, you know, phones and like the pervasiveness of information technology. We’ve talked a little bit about that. And in terms of just like knowledge about, you know, what’s going on, like, who’s applying to what college, but do you think there are negative effects kind of beyond that, that we should be worried about?

Matt Feeney 39:19
Are you talking about information technology in particular? Yeah. Well, yeah, I mean, there’s, you know, there’s, again, in this also kind of goes to the whole kind of competitiveness thing in general we can we become, we feel like well, we have to submit to the imperative for technology because that’s really where the future lies, you know, with our kids. You know, you kind of you feel like I got a joke in early in the technology chapter about how when I you know, my parents got me an iPad, when I went out, you know, when my kids were little when I didn’t even have a third kit yet. And, and having this iPad I just naturally kind of like related to the existence of the iPad is big, pretty image, you know, screen with all this kind of stuff that I could gonna present to their, their hungry eyes. And, and I just thought of it as being, you know, oh my gosh, the stuff that they can learn on this, you know, and it was completely in defiance of what my own kind of like informed sensibilities about this stuff were but just having that, that bit of computer technology, it was just so beguiling and so seductive, like, Oh, my kids are going to learn a ton from this, this, this iPad, you know, yeah. And, and in so there’s a way in which the, you know, computers and technologies kind of speak to us as parents as being a kind of vessels of, of agency and information that we’re going to that we’re going to, like, hook our kids up, and they’re going to learn, because there’s so much information, you know, that can cause through this, this this portal? And, yeah, so that’s what I mean. So that is just, I think that kind of like, is the kind of one of the origins of our kind of how easily disarmed we are before it. That is to say, we were not, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of reasons we all know them, too. There’s a lot of reasons to be suspicious to be defensive regarding technology, and we kind of learn about all the harms and possible harms and stuff. But we feel like well, geez, you know, if we’re going to give in to the, to the warnings, then that’s going to kind of like sever us from the the currents of power that you know, about, you know, over the future that run through these these devices, we feel like if you don’t, if you’re not your kids not connected kid doesn’t have an iPad, he’s not like, you know, what a reading Wikipedia pages or whatever they’re supposed to be doing. Right? That that he’s missing out. And it’s, it’s a, it’s a, again, it’s one of these things where that kind of base level of vigilance that we’re supposed to have about our kids and their brains and the future and stuff kind of kind of leaves us susceptible to kind of believing the promises that reside in something like an iPad?

Will Jarvis 41:50
Definitely. No, I really like that. This next question, you just talked about the future, you know, how we think about the future? You know, one of the big problems I see in American politics today is,

you know,

the left doesn’t really have this, like appealing vision of the future that’s different than the president that’s achievable. And neither does a right really, like, you know, no one has is okay, like, what does the future look like? That’s better for everyone. That is actually different from today that we could, you know, put together like, it’s something we could actually do. Do you think that exists in that in the problem space, you know, or is are we just kind of going to suffer decline and decadence like Ross Douthat talks about right.

Matt Feeney 42:32
Um, you know, I’ve, it’s where I mean, I did not, I didn’t, you know, I did not expect a lot from Joe Biden when I voted for him. But I voted for him. And, you know, like, and so I don’t really have no particular romantic about about the future, I don’t, not typically kind of like signed on to kind of progressive visions of ultimate fulfillment, or, you know, in through history or something like that. Yeah, so, right, that’s otherwise, I won’t go into that. But I was gonna say, No, I’m not, you know, I’m not, there’s no way I was gonna joke about how we are the fulfillment of the past, but but but like, nothing, no one’s gonna improve upon us. But no, I was gonna. What I was gonna say was that, but there’s just a kind of handful of things like the child tax credit, for example, like, Yeah, all right. You know, like little things I think that like, for I feel like the the prot, the prospects for policy changes like that, and the outlook that that the different outlook that that that offers, that is to say, just like, again, thinking about it, first of all, in terms of families, yeah. What is it that what I mean, because when we talk, I’m talking about, like, the stresses of families of college bound kids, and kind of, you know, what it’s like to live in the kind of fear of the future and stuff, but what if, you know, I mean, think about how, how poisonous that kind of predicament is, when you’re what you’re the future you’re worried about is whether you’re gonna have food and that kind of thing. And so, I mean, there’s so this, this more kind of generous kind of public policy toward families just at the basic level of giving them money. Yeah. I think a lot of there’s a lot of and I and I absorbed a lot of this myself back in the day, a lot of anxiety about what the, you know, quote unquote, pathologies of kind of public handout to whatever would be, but you know, there’s a fair amount of research, you know, kind of more current that that doesn’t perhaps doesn’t entirely eliminate those concerns, but you know, it situates them and minimizes them to a certain degree, where you can then focus on what the benefits are, you know, which is the fact that like, poor people have more money and families have a little bit more security. And so, yes, and that extend that policy approach in other areas. You could possibly just see a kind of an easing of it, just a feeling of easing of the feeling that the stakes are so damn high, right, then the stakes aren’t that high. Maybe we’re not like just at the cusp of failure and something, you know, some, you know, big version of life that is that is that is kind of not worth living and yeah. So, yeah, so anyway, that’s my you know, and I’ve turned into something of a bleeding heart in this regard because I feel like, you know, the the, the families add support and it’s hard to it’s hard to be a family, it’s hard to raise kids and materially and otherwise. And, and, you know, and to, to sort of kind of live in a society where, where the some of that feeling of imminent, you know, apocalypse is is diminished. It would be a good thing.

Will Jarvis 45:40
Definitely, yeah. I wholeheartedly agree, I think it’s really important. We all support families. I might have read this in your book, I can’t quite remember. But it does seem like, you know, we used to live with a bunch of, you know, we’ve lived with our extended relatives, right, you know, your uncle’s, your aunts, you live all together. And now we live in very kind of, you know, a much smaller groups, you know, like, Mom and Dad and two kids. Like, that’s that’s much more average family. It’s like I kind of Yeah, yeah. And it, do you think that that’s a negative trend? And it’s actually, you know, that being the norm, that’s not really the norm anymore? Either, like a nuclear family is not the norm, it’s, it’s usually single parent households. Now, do you think, do you see this trend kind of continuing or you think was something we’re able to get out?

Matt Feeney 46:27
You know, this is the thing is that is that when this kind of goes to kind of class stratification to that, like, the nuclear family remains the norm for educated, educated parents, right. So that the more educated you have, the less likely to get divorced. And so, and there’s a lot of a very, there’s a lot of advantages to kids that accrue to that. That’s the one thing. Yeah. And, um, and, but but the kind of the other question of like, say, there’s the nuclear nuclear family, kind of, like, you know, just just whatever conceptually, kind of sits between the dissolving that they say, like the disaggregating family and the single parent family, like, on the one hand, and then the extended family. Yeah, on the other, I think it may have been my my friend, Ian Corbin, who wrote the thing that you’re referring to about, about the nuclear family he’s talking about, he’s kind of like, he was gonna, you see, he was criticizing the kind of the, the dominance of the nuclear family, not because he wants to see more of single parent families, but because he, you know, the, the model of the extended family, where grandparents, and aunts and uncles are kind of nearby, or maybe even in the household, is, you know, perhaps a valuable, worthwhile alternative. That is, you know, I’m not against that. But one thing I do, I mean, I have a, I mean, my, there’s a way in which my kind of my own kind of conception of family life, you know, the kind of defending family life in the, in that kind of the note of family life as a, as a kind of site of otherness, of alterity of difference. Yeah. That that, you know, that that’s built upon a conception of the nuclear family, right, because that’s where, like, those those little kind of intense bonds form those little shared meanings that really are not shared with the outside world. So there’s a way in which, you know, I feel like the nuclear as a as a way of protecting that kind of intense particular bonds, that that we don’t experience out in the world, that the nuclear family maybe the sturdiest version of that, right. But at the same time, it is there are definitely costs to favoring that model over over say, the extended family and the way that in the us the way that you know, the kind of for at least, I don’t think it’s the case so much anymore. But despite, you know, certainly in the decades after World War Two, that the cultural model that was propounded that being you know, of the idea of family life was, you know, living in a cul de sac and a subdivision and as you know, split out home where, you know, a little castle, and that’s a costly model in a lot of ways, too. So. So, you know, I mean, no, as I’m sentimentally I’m very fond of the nuclear family model, the two parent nuclear family now. But again, you say this, and you and you kind of like feel like, well, people are going to be upset because you’re denigrating other family arrangements. And, you know, and I know, single parents work hard, and yes, it’s kind of important to acknowledge that, but you know, I mean, but at the same time, the problems that single parents face are in their own way and argument for do parents.

Will Jarvis 49:26
Yes, I absolutely. And I think, yeah, I think people can never hear that, this point that, you know, they they hear, like, they hear someone say, like, okay, like, I’m pro nuclear family, and they’re like, well, you clearly get single parents and it’s like, well, you know, two parent, like married households have better outcomes, like in all these metrics, people probably for reasons like you know, you’re kind of committed to each other. There’s kind of this like sense in which it’s harder to defect and for whatever reasons and and they hear that and then it It’s something like we used to have strong social norms. Like, if you got a girl pregnant, and she’s gonna have the baby, you know, you get married like that everyone got married, like a 1960 everyone got married. And this was like, what people did. And, you know, there’s there’s downsides to that, because you’re locked in perhaps in a relationship is not purely optimal. But it does seem like there are a lot of upsides. And people just can’t hear the idea that well, it would be good if we had a social norm that this is the norm, you know, what I mean? encourage that happen,

Matt Feeney 50:29
right? And it’s hard to like, find it, it’s hard to kind of, it’s hard to, to find yourself defending that norm, right. And kind of like, is for the kind of the did the reason that you’re talking about without people taking it as if well, you’re gonna have you know, denigrating the efforts of people in a way, you know, and I will say, I’m all for respecting the efforts of seeing single parents and I and I am not against gay people, gay, married people adopting kids. But you know, there’s a, there’s a degree of kind of like innovation and family structure with say, like polyamorous families, right, that’s like, the start drawing line. And the thing is that you’ll get you’ll get grief for doing that, like for questioning, for drawing those kinds of lines? And I feel like, No, I’ll draw those lines.

Will Jarvis 51:15
Right. Well, and there’s almost, I have this feeling that, you know, this is an arrangement we’ve been using for a very long time. And there’s reasons there can be reasons why these things are persistent, right, like, and even though we may not necessarily be able to define all of them. Like they’re probably there’s this Chesterton’s fence thing where

Matt Feeney 51:31
we got to be careful, right? No, I agree. I think that the, the person, you know, the thing is the thing, though, is we’re in a, we’re at a time now, where the persistence of an institution is, in fact, an argument against it by a lot of people, right. It’s like anything that kind of like comes to us from the past, is held in suspicion, you know, and so you and I are like, yeah, the family has been is, you know, survived the test of time. And like, a lot of people are like that, you know, if you’ve, if you, you know, if you were proven in the test of time, that means that you’re, that you’re, you know, failing the test of the progressive president or something, you know, and so, you and so, anyway, these are, these are political fights to have ultimately, right, right, that were what we value, and I value the family. Definitely, definitely.

Will Jarvis 52:14
Well put. Well, Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to come on. I really enjoyed talking to you. And I’ve learned a ton. Do you have any parting thoughts? And second question, Where can people find your work and the book?

Matt Feeney 52:28
Well, the book is available at a bunch of different I suppose. I don’t know, you know, did my bookstore locally, but I’m sure, you can certainly find it in various online vendors like Amazon. And so what was your other question?

Will Jarvis 52:43
You know, do you have any parting thoughts you’d like to leave with people? And I know, that’s kind of like General, right? Yeah, um, well, besides buy my book. It’s important. It’s great, by the way.

Matt Feeney 52:55
Oh, yeah. So yeah. Yeah, I just, you know, I would just say, you know, the, I would like to bring these two considerations together. One is the is the kind of support of the families institution, but also the recognize that, that in their spirit in the present in the kind of the kind of fierce competitiveness and, and velocity of modern life, I mean, America, the family needs help. And, and, and so there’s, you know, that it’s, it’s maybe time to start thinking about a public role for, if not long past time to start thinking about a public role for not just supporting families, but for, for taking a little bit of the air out of the pressure balloon that surrounds families.

Will Jarvis 53:41
Definitely. I love that. Well, thank you bad. All right. Well, thanks a lot. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives.

Join the discussion

More from this show