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Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

Published in August of 2018.

How complicit are we, as people who make their living in higher ed, of working to perpetuate a postsecondary system that seems to concentrate privilege as much as it creates opportunity?

What are the most uncomfortable questions that you could ask yourself about the current structure of U.S. higher education?

If you were to put yourself in the shoes of those who least benefit from the current postsecondary system, say a student who starts and failed to graduate or one with massive educational debts (not mutually exclusive), what would be your critique of higher education?

How would you judge the success of the current system of higher education from the perspective of a poorly paid contingent instructor?

Then ask yourself, are you brave enough - or insulated and protected enough - to both publicly ask and answer those questions? Can a higher ed insider, someone who is dependent on their higher ed job to pay the mortgage and the kids tuition, be a higher ed critic? Can we believe in the promise of higher education, and have real affection and loyalty to our institutions, and at the same time be clear-eyed about our faults and shortcomings?  Can someone without tenure play this role?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

But I do think that we might have a template in a fascinating new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas.  This is a book that thoroughly skews the elite view of progress, social change, and the appropriate role of the market in society. This a book that utterly takes apart the self-regarding culture that pervades elite gatherings such as TED Talks and the Davos World Economic Forum.

What is most interesting is that the author Giridharadas is something of a card-carrying member of the elite that he critiques. Giridharadas has given not 1, but 2 TED Talks. He is a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. He was a columnist for the NYTimes. He is a former McKinsey consultant.

This background gives Giridharadas a certain kind of credibility when he argues that TED Talking thought leaders, and the institutions in which they congregate, may be more the problem than the solution.

His indictment is that the way to achieve thought leadership status today is to find an audience for your ideas among the wealthy. The way to have rich people want to invite you to their events is not to blame them for the growth in economic inequality. If you want your articles published, your books purchased, and your invitations to keynote to arrive then you should not blame your potential audience for the problems that you identify. You should not call for more business regulation. You should not push unions. And you should not suggest that the wealthy should pay higher taxes.

While I very much enjoyed Winners Take All, I can’t say that I agree with most of what Giridharadas has to say. On a basic level, I don’t blame the growth of economic inequality on TED. I do think that the basic story of social and economic life is one of long-run progress. I don’t believe what happens in Davos or Aspen is, in the broader sense, all that important.

Still, it is powerful stuff to watch an elite thought leader turn against the whole idea of thought leadership.

Can we imagine a critic of elite higher education is who also part of - and still loyal to - the system of elite higher education?

The closest we may have gotten in recent years is William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  But Deresiewicz wrote his book after he left Yale.  And I should note here that I agree even less with Deresiewicz’s conclusions than I do with Giridharadas, as I think our students are pretty amazing, but that is a different argument.

Winners Take All is a must read if you work in philanthropy or any other industry where wealth and idea makers intersect. Aspiring thought leaders should read this book, along with Daniel Drezner’s excellent 2017 book The Ideas Industry.  

For higher ed people, Winners Take All is a book that should inspire some uncomfortable questions about elite postsecondary education.

Who do you think are the best inside / out critics of higher ed?

What role, if any, should digital learning people play as critical observers of our postsecondary system?

Can you point to a book where you disagreed with many of the arguments, yet you still find yourself recommending to friends and colleagues?

What are you reading?

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