“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote the great British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. His intent was to defend what later political scientists would label “civil society” or “mediating institutions”—families, churches, bowling leagues, volunteer organizations, and other units that bring people together independent of the government. From this observation, Matt Feeney derives the title of his recent book Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age. Alan Jacobs writes in his review:
If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. . . . The really brilliant thing about Feeney’s book . . . is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs—indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs.
Feeney is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such—there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community—but looks with a gimlet eye . . . on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain, and disseminate their power over families.
He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls.