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In praise of excellence


There are at least two major problems with the philosophy underpinning modern educational thinking.

The first problem is denial of excellence, i.e. the attitude which describes those who discriminate between the excellent and the mediocre as elitist (now a term of abuse). This has led to the lowering of acadamic standards across the board in order to accommodate those with less and less academic aptitude and/or ability.  Those who deny this should take a look at the questions and the quality of answers required at A level 50 years ago or at the inability of many graduates today with good honours degrees to present a coherent argument in writing or, in some cases, to construct a grammatical sentence.

The second problem is the absurd idea that there is only one yardstick by which individuals should be measured - the academic - and that therefore as many young people as possible should‚ pursue higher education at least to undergraduate level.

The denial of excellence causes many problems:

  • it discourages effort (if everyone is good, why strive to improve)

  • it encourages unrealistic expectations (many children, never having been criticised, are convinced they can do anything, even if untrained)

  • it generates complacency and the belief not only that poor work is perfectly acceptable but that it is not any worse than good work.


It is most unlikely that more than 15% of the population have both the ability and desire to pursue academic studies beyond 'A' levels. The best indicator is probably the number of those who passed the 11 plus and then went on to university. The grammar school intake, drawn from all, or almost all, sections of society, ranged from 10 to 35% of the population of 11 year olds. Of those who went to grammar school, about half went on to higher education.

If the 15% figure is right, we certainly should not conclude‚ that the rest of the population is stupid. It simply means that, for whatever reason, they are not academically inclined.

So what else could these young people usefully do? They could undertake vocational training.

"Oh", you say. "You mean go back to the old Polytechnic system which was where we sent those who couldn't go to university."

That was never true - and certainly is not what I mean.   What I mean, and this brings me to the heart of the matter, is that the majority of those we are currently bundling off to university should undergo vocational training and, if they excel, should be given the same status and, if need be, the same degrees, as those who pursue an academic course.

But the key word here is "excel". In every profession, in every trade, indeed in every job, there are those who are very good at what they do; there are those, the majority, who are adequate but certainly not outstanding; and there are those who are incompetent or lazy or both. The modern practice of equating the admiration of excellence with some form of negative discrimination is against common sense and socially extremely harmful.

Whence came this idea that the measure of all men is their academic achievements? It's an extraordinarily narrow and arrogant view. Why should those who pursue trades which require mental acuity and manual dexterity (e.g. electricians and plumbers) be considered in any way inferior to media studies graduates or historians? We should distinguish between first class electricians and mediocre electricians, as we should distinguish between first class academics and mediocre ones - but that said, let us accord equal praise and status to those who excel in whatever field. It would be a better, fairer and more efficient society.

So we should reintroduce discrimination between the excellent, the mediocre, the poor and the appalling in all fields. And we should accept that people can excel in many fields - and praise and reward all those who succeed in the field of their choice.

Instead, today's society seems determined that all should pass through the academic process and that all, however poor their academic work, should be rewarded with a degree.

2007 07 10


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