Higher Education, Distinction, and Moral Identity

My first project, drawing on data from an elite university—including archival sources and observations and interviews with Muslim students—explores the moral orders animating American higher education and their significance for social inequality and student identity. I show how colleges and universities help to produce cultural understandings of higher education as a source of virtue, specifically linked to “open mindedness.” By constructing archetypes of the good student and educated person, those institutions enable and constrain students’ claims to moral identity. Furthermore, I argue that openness operates as a moral justification for privilege. Rather than implying indiscriminate acceptance of difference–as theories of the cultural “omnivore” frequently imply–openness constitutes a new “sacred” that replaces the “highbrow” while perpetuating its deeper social function.