Hiredesai: Omnivorousness and Higher Ed Admissions

Annika Hiredesai, Columnist

AND is in our DNA. This is the phrase underlined in my notes from my first visit to Northwestern more than two years ago. As much as I was soaking up the idyllic views at the Lakefill, I was also enamored by my tour guide’s depiction of a student body composed of driven, multifaceted individuals.

Cultural omnivorousness, a term coined by sociologist Richard Peterson, refers to a shift in cultural consumption. Peterson’s original paper focuses on a shift in those who traditionally preferred highbrow music—opera and classical music—to an increasing openness and appreciation of lowbrow tastes—genres like jazz and country. The concept has grown over the last few decades to encapsulate a range of shifting norms that have allowed consumers to demonstrate cultural tolerance in an increasingly-diverse America. During a lecture on cultural capital, my mind immediately connected cultural omnivorousness with college admissions.

The students who are typically most successful in the process are those who can demonstrate ambition softened by the more human elements of community service and cultural awareness. Applicants need layers, whether that be the nationally ranked swimmer who helped with community outreach at a local clinic or the talented artist who teaches watercolor painting to seniors. As a student here, I am continually inspired by peers who have done—and continue to do—some pretty incredible things. The concept of cultural omnivorousness seems to be something to aspire to. Yet, I can’t help but notice that certain groups of people benefit from this shift in cultural capital more than others in the admissions process.

In a landmark ethnographic study, former University of California Santa Cruz professor Pamela Perry details White high school students’ feeling of cultureness. From her interviews with students at both predominantly White and non-White schools, as well as multiracial high schools, she notes that this lack of culture comes from the inherent assumption that White culture is the norm and to be cultured is a deviation.

We cannot ignore the fact that cultural omnivorousness requires one to demonstrate a broadening of horizons and awareness of the community. By definition, this is much easier to establish for White, affluent students who are not already associated with assumptions about their upbringing. As a result, students who are ethnically and racially diverse are often overlooked and typecasted. This can certainly be seen in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard lawsuit that drew national attention. Although the ruling was ultimately in favor of Harvard, it was revealed that Asian-American applicants were routinely scored lower by admissions officers when it came to demonstrating positive personality traits. A crucial component of omnivorousness in the admissions process is this personability factor, especially given the limitations of test scores and GPAs. It’s hard to imagine that this systematic pattern has nothing to do with the long-held prejudices against Asian-Americans as hardworking but indistinguishable from one another.

For some students, their identities have not only been dismissed, but have been actively held against them. Ted Thornhill’s 2018 study on White admissions officers’ responses to inquiries from Black prospective students is incredibly telling. Emails that mentioned Black Lives Matter and combating White privilege had a 17 percent lower response rate than deracialized emails focused solely on academics. In the wake of the tumultuous events of the past year, it’s especially hard to fathom that Black students advocating for equity and justice still face such prejudice from a system that supposedly values their cultural contributions to the community.

It’s clear that cultural omnivorousness in college admissions is just as subject to the racial double standards that pervade the rest of our country. With cultural omnivorousness as the criteria for admission, higher ed institutions need to move beyond a superficial definition that values a breadth of interests. Culture that comes from rich heritage and lived experiences cannot be overlooked, much less discriminated against because of the uncomfortable truth it highlights. If admissions officers truly wish to create diverse, dynamic student bodies, there must be a willingness to cast aside preconceived notions and welcome students who are reflective of our changing world.

Annika Hiredesai is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.