December 19, 2008
Bernie Madoff isn’t alone. In recent weeks, as the so-called “credit crisis” has unfolded, we’ve seen evidence of a catastrophic failure of leadership at the highest levels of our country in both government and industry. Apologists are sure to blame the usual suspects: “a few bad apples.” But for decades now there have been so many bad apples in senior positions of leadership in our country (do I even have to mention Bush?), with the sub-prime, credit card gouging Wall Street mob being just the latest example. That’s why it makes sense now, right now, to take a careful look at the tree that produced such strange fruit: our elitist system of higher education, which extruded the delusional self-absorbed jerks who led us off this cliff like pastry dough from a strudel machine. And yes, I am serious. I blame our colleges and universities for much of this mess and, in particular, for the abysmal aggregate quality of leadership in both our public and private sectors.
As I tried to explain in this column ten years ago, our higher education system, and particularly the so-called “elite” schools, have inadvertently contributed to the leadership crisis in this country in many ways, including by convincing so many of their students — the future leaders of America — that they are better and more deserving than everyone else. As I wrote, “the procedures used to determine who gets into a given college, and who does not, teach a lesson in exclusion that undermines everything else the professors might cover…when you tell some people they are better and more deserving than others eventually they start believing it.” And when their gold-plated academic credentials land them in positions of power and influence, all too often they act that way. (For a more detailed analysis about how a culture of shared prosperity has been undermined by the elitist structure of our higher education system, read this.) But put simply, our nation is now reaping, in institution after institution, what our system of higher education has sown. We’re not dealing with a few bad apples. We’re dealing with an orchard that produces a leadership class that is out of touch with, and often hostile to, the life experiences of the 97 percent of the country deemed unworthy of the best college education our nation can provide. What we should be about, by contrast, is finding ways to bring the best possible education experiences within reach of everyone. That’s one of the main reasons why I have spent so much of my time in recent years pushing for public domain textbooks and the open education resources movement.