Admitting a Sense of Superiority: Aggrandized Higher Education Status as an Objection to Educational Inequality

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Studies in Philosophy and Education


Recalling the landmark US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the advancement of educational equality is often associated with the reduction of stigmatizing differences in status or “sense of inferiority” engendered by separately and differentially educated citizens. This essay takes up the obverse concern, the sense of superiority sustained by educational inequality, with particular focus on the inequality signaled by higher education status (HES). I contend that the presence of aggrandized HES in a democratic society provides reasons to object to educational inequality for which institutions of higher education ought to be held responsible. Aggrandized HES not only demands a questionable deference from citizens in a democratic society; it also weakens HES’s signaling of epistemic authority and equality of educational opportunity, which harms the public’s motivation to learn by distorting beliefs about education. To address this problem, I argue that the best policy solution for curbing aggrandized uses of HES is to transform the positional aspect of higher education using an admissions policy originally suggested by Elizabeth Anderson, which I term the elite culture strategy. Beyond admissions policies, this essay addresses the larger concern of educating citizens to perceive and assess educational status according to democratic norms and not solely in terms of self-interested gain.