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Why is Squid Game, the gory South Korean dystopian thriller, poised to become Netflix’s most-watched series ever?

Critics offer several explanations:

  • The cultural obsession, evident in The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Stephen King’s Running Man and Survivor, with fierce, deadly, gamelike reality competitions.
  • Pervasive public fears about “a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide,” also brought to screens by the British anthology series Black Mirror.
  • Contemporary social and economic anxieties about costly housing; interminable, unsustainable personal debt; and the deepening class divide.
  • Pandemic-fueled feelings of despair about an uncertain future.
  • The growing international appetite for South Korean cultural exports like the Oscar-winning 2020 film Parasite and the catchy, addictive melodies and slick choreography of K-pop.

My colleague Michael Rutter points to another element that has been largely ignored in popular commentaries: the show’s depiction of elite higher education.

Two of the series leads are childhood friends. One, down on his luck, is a broken man, an absentee father and a reckless gambler. The other is the “pride of the town” because he attended Seoul National University and has become a "business success." (Note: This paragraph was updated from an earlier version to correct the relationship between the two characters. They are not brothers.)

But as Michael points out, the successful brother is also a gambler, but one who bets with other people’s money.

The references to Seoul National University, which recur again and again, are clearly deliberate. In South Korea, as in the United States, elite educational institutions carry a certain mystique and panache.

Attending SNU is a bit like attending Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford: it’s a signal, a symbol, an identity. Above all, it’s widely regarded as a passport or gateway into the “power elite,” the “ruling class” and leadership positions in business, finance, law, publishing and government.

The well-dressed, lauded brother who attended SNU is considered superior, noble, protected and impossible to fault -- even though he is just as much of a broken person.

Indeed, by all accounts, he has produced far more personal (and professional) damage than his brother. The financial devastation hinted at in the first few episodes suggests his role in a large-scale Enron-like economic collapse or some kind of Madoff-like Ponzi scheme.

It’s obvious what the show’s writers are trying to say. The brothers, degree or no degree, are not that much different. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby when he described Tom and Daisy Buchanan as reckless, they are people who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

It’s, of course, highly unlikely that a mere television series, no matter how popular, will cause Seoul National University to rethink its purpose, admissions strategy or place in the culture -- any more than Princeton is likely to question its insularity and to turn away from what it has become: a bit of living history, a This Side of Paradise theme park located in a bejeweled New Jersey town.

Still, there is another path.

An essay entitled “Is Harvard Complacent?” which appeared in the institution’s own alumni magazine suggests that even at the very pinnacle of elite higher education there is a growing recognition that such privileged institutions have debts to the world that demand repayment.

That essay, written by Brian Rosenberg, Macalester College’s former president, asks his readers to engage in a thought experiment:

“Imagine putting aside fidelity to the status quo and thinking instead about impact: that is, imagine if even the wealthiest and most selective universities were willing to step back and look hard at the effectiveness of their current work. Higher education should in its ideal form lead to more economic security for more people, a more equitable and innovative society, and a well-functioning democracy: in the words of Harvard’s mission statement, it should prepare ‘citizens and citizen-leaders.’”

What might that entail?

It would, of course, require these institutions to seriously upgrade their focus on first-generation students from low-income backgrounds. It also would demand that they embrace, much more than they have, online learning, not as a revenue ploy but as a way to advance access, affordability and attainment.

In addition, it would necessitate focusing more on access than exclusion. How about transforming overpriced master’s programs into much cheaper certificate programs that can serve many more students?

Above all, these institutions must do more to benefit the public.

To be sure, Harvard has built entire highways, put in commuter rail lines, redeveloped public housing and attracted talent and venture capital to the Boston area. But this is primarily for its own benefit and the benefit of a very top tier of businesses.

The goal should not be simply to “create leaders” -- that is, to nurture future business and policy-making elites -- but to create and to use their intellectual as well as financial wealth to contribute to the higher education ecosystem and to global and societal improvement.

Rather than acting like fortresses designed to protect themselves and saving their endowments for a rainy day when there’s no storm big enough to deplete those resources, these elite institutions need to embrace open access as a principle and redefine their value, which is to promote change and innovation.

Bill Gates had it right: “with great wealth comes great responsibility, a responsibility to give back to society and a responsibility to see that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to help those most in need.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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