Do you want to understand the thinking of Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and other billionaires who are disrupting public education? Listen up.

Jennifer Berkshire (once known as the blogger EduShyster) and Jack Schneider (historian of education) create podcasts in a series called “Have You Heard?” in which they interview interesting thinkers.

In this episode, they interview Anand Giridharadas, author of the important book “Winners Take All.” He lived inside the billionaires’ bubble and understood that they want to be seen and applauded as saviors without disrupting the status quo that keeps them on top.

Here is a sampling from the podcast:


“Just because you once got lucky at a hedge fund trade, you shouldn’t get to decide what our schools are like,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of the best-selling new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. The book is a scathing indictment of elites who seek to ‘fix’ society, while leaving the inequitable system that has made them so rich untouched. It’s also essential reading for understanding why so many of these billionaire changemakers are intent on ‘disrupting’ public education.

From Bezos to Zuckerberg, the initiatives that these winners champion “mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect problem solving or universal solutions,” argues Giridharadas. “Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things and the bypassing of government.” Sound familiar?

In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider talk to Giridharadas about education reform in the new gilded age.

Have You Heard: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently announced that he’s going to give back by starting up a chain of Montessori-inspired preschools in urban areas. It’s a perfect example of the ‘winner take all’ mentality that your book is about, that someone who has been absolutely central to our age of inequality is now stepping in to offer a fix—on his terms.

Anand Giridharadas: Jeff Bezos becomes the latest entrant to a whole world of billionaire givers, and what’s interesting is that he arrives at a moment of reckoning within both the the tech world where he made his money and the philanthropy world where he’s now alighting. I think five years ago the general attitude to big tech was, ‘thanks so much for this app uncle,’ and you know, in the general attitude to people giving money away was like, gosh, thanks so much. Thanks for giving back. And our culture is changing on both those scores. People are starting to recognize that a lot of the money that is being given away, a lot of how it’s made, a lot of how it’s kept, are themselves the causes of the problems that these rich people turn around and solve. And that we may be better off as a society with people just not causing problems in the first place and then turning around and solving them.

Have You Heard: There’s a common assumption in the education world that elite changemakers, as you describe them, are motivated primarily by the desire for financial gain. But part of what makes Winners Take All such a compelling read is that you really let us see the world through their eyes and the picture we get is much more complex than just ‘I want to cash in on the schools.’

Giridharadas: One of the things I’ll say just overall is that, you know, for Winners Take All I spent about two plus years in the world of elite so-called world changers, trying to understand how they see the world, understand how they try to make change. What I found is much more nuanced story about what motivates the winners of our age and among the things I found was that many, many elites who try to give, who try to donate to a charter school, who try to get on the board of a charter school, who try to, you know, help the Harlem Children’s Zone, who try to do any number of things in any number of other areas—there’s a general sincerity to these people in general. They are not trying to do this to make more money, they’re trying to do this to make the world better.

The problem is that they’re not. The problem is that the good they do, which is real but limited, is often an accomplice to the preservation of a system that keeps generating more harm. The charter school that they donate to, their donation to it as part of a system that allows them to protect the underfunding and unequal funding of public schools across this country. They’re not willing to have an education system that funds public schools equally and adequately because that would cost rich people a lot of money.

Have You Heard: Market thinking has really taken over the education world, and one of the concepts imported from business that you talk about is the “win/win.” It sounds great, but as you argue, it’s key to keeping intact. the structures that make our society so unequal

Giridharadas: The win/win idea originated in business and it’s basically trade and exchange. You have money, I have ice cream, you want ice cream, I’ll get your money. Good—win/win. But what has happened in recent years is that the idea of the win/win has kind of insidiously infiltrated the world of social change, of education, of health, of fighting inequality and poverty. There is now this feeling that both parties—the powerful and the powerless, the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor—must benefit from a social change for it to be worth doing.

Now, the cleverness of this is it still called a win/win, so it still sounds great. But hold on a second. Are we saying that the powerful must always benefit from helping the powerless? Are we saying that social change must always kick something upstairs to the people benefiting from the status quo? Are we saying the only way to empower women is in ways that give a little something to the men? Are we saying that the only way to help poor kids that are screwed by our education system are in ways that also kicked something up to the affluent? Are we saying that the only way to, you know, improve our healthcare system is in ways that take nothing from billionaires and corporations? Yeah, that’s what we’re saying when we increasingly talk about social change as being a win/win.

Have You Heard: One of the arguments you make in the book is that inequality isn’t just about economics but about ideas, and that the more resources a small group of people commands, the more they effectively control the terms of the debate. But there’s obviously a cultural element at work too, that we’ve given, for example, Mark Zuckerberg an incredible amount of authority, including now anointing him as the savior who’s going to fix our public schools.

Giridharadas: In Europe, no one thinks of Mark Zuckerberg as someone who’s changing the world. Now ‘no one’ may not be literally correct, but in European cultures, that’s just not how they see someone like that. Therefore in Europe they’re not as vulnerable to the Mark Zuckerbergs because they know how to regulate them and they fine him and they stand up for themselves. They create data protection laws that are much tougher than ours. They create antitrust scrutiny that’s much tougher than ours, and I think a big reason they do that is they have a culture that’s free of these myths.

We are participating in a culture that valorizes the win/win, that valorizes the billionaire savior, that is grateful when people who have money they probably shouldn’t have give it away. And we can actually participate in not believing those things anymore. We can just stop believing those things. We can actually, the next time someone gives money away and is, you know, at a conference that you’re attending, ask them a question about how they made the money, not how they’re giving it away.

We uphold through what we passively assent to in this world, and schools uphold it by who they put on the board and, you know, and who they raise money from and who they allow to be their advisors. We are all in on a world that has entrusted the super rich to become our saviors and and the replacements of government in many areas of our life, and that’s an empowering message because we can stop participating in that culture today.

Have You Heard: You write about the winners’ disdain for democracy and preference for private-sector solutions that bypass government. I’m guessing this will strike a chord with anyone who is, say, trying to figure out exactly where Mark Zuckerberg’s enormous stake in expanding personalized learning, for example, is going and is being told ‘it’s none of your business.’

Giridharadas: For a long time, we’ve all been on the receiving end of this culture that tells us to solve things privately, you know, either have a billionaire give back or buy a tote bag that’s going to change the world or a red iPhone case that’s going to change the world or, you know, go to a plutocratic conference that’s going to change the world. I want to urge people to, the next time you are walking around your society and you see a problem that disturbs you, you see problem with education or any other area of your life that disturbs you, think of a solution that has the following four qualities: it’s public, it’s democratic, it’s universal and it’s institutional. Think of a solution that actually would solve the problem at the root, not in the branches and for everybody, not just the people that you would want to save that day, and get out of that relationship of saving to begin with.

When we act privately, when you have these foundations or companies picking and choosing people they want to save, again, that’s a feudal relationship. That’s a relationship of master and servant. The servant is having a little difficulty in their life, the master is throwing some gold coins at them, but it’s not changing the relationship of master and servant. When we act democratically through our shared institutions to solve a problem for everybody, in education, in health, whatever else, we are expressing the value of the whole. We are acting together to protect each other and it has a fundamentally different meaning. We are both the object and the subject of the help, and I think we have to, in education and every other sphere, get out of this world in which we think that because you once got lucky at a hedge fund trade, you should decide what our schools are like.

Have You Heard: Winners Take All is an infuriating read—people should probably avoid reading it in the presence of pitchforks—but it’s also kind of liberating, What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Giridharadas: I think of this book as very much trying to dismantle a culture and it does so through stories of people living in this culture, struggling with these ideas, trying to do better, but being limited inhibited by a bunch of mythology that encircles them, and my book is trying to kind of get rid of that mythology. It’s trying to dismantle it and make you never use the word win/ win or thought leader or innovation non ironically again. I think this kind of this false sense that you can change the world in ways that protect the status quo for the winners of our age is at the heart of why we live in an age that has been so good for winners and so, so you know, mediocre at best or punishing for everybody else.