The Last Word on Excellence

Written by A.C. Grayling.

Uncritical egalitarianism poses a threat to excellence, seen by democratic man as an easily removable cause of envy and exclusion. – Alexis de Tocqueville

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he gave expression to the ideal of excellence in the fostering of culture, by describing it as "getting to know, on all the matters that most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits." Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy, important though that is, but to produce an enculturated society which will live up to the ideal in Aristotle's dictum: "we educate ourselves in order to make noble use of our leisure."

From China to France every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done from an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles – superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive – cream the highest-flying minds and subject them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a price worth paying for social equality. But there is a danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – falls prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America you need money to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

Until recently the United Kingdom was one of the few countries in the world where educational excellence was available on grounds purely of merit, despite the fact that the superior education provided by private schools ensured that plutocratic influences interfered with meritocratic ones, in this case by purchasing meritocratic advantages. This remains the case, although to a much reduced extent than formerly. But recent changes mean that the money barrier has been reintroduced: university students now have to pay fees, and will soon be paying more. They do so either by borrowing or by relying on parents. Starting life in debt or expense, even for supposed greater rewards later, is a disincentive, and is felt especially by the already least advantaged.

It is therefore an irony that a government which is reintroducing a money obstacle, and with it a serious derogation from merit as the sole criterion, should focus on influence, under the disguise of the "old school tie" – a much diminished and ever-diminishing factor – as a political ploy. If it were not a cheap opinion-poll trick, it would be troubling evidence of ignorance or unintelligence. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term 'elite' but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides, fail our highest expectations – if, in short, they are not elite after all.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world – most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies – the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, both for good and ill. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. This latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains. But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. Excellence in every sphere should be held out as the target, fostered and encouraged wherever found by an effort of the social will: which means, among other things, by having institutions, especially of learning, which are the very best and most demanding of their kind.

A society which resents excellence is a society in trouble. What good does it do us if we hold back the best to make the rest feel better? We would not dream of doing so in football, and we would be alarmed if we thought we did it in medicine. There is a crucial point here. It is that doing and being the best is demanding. America's Camelot President, John F. Kennedy, was blessed in his speech-writers, one of whom wrote a memorable peroration on why America wished to put a man on the moon (the real reason was to show that America had a Bigger Rocket than the Soviets): we will do it, said the text of the speech, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; and doing hard things makes you better. That is what excellence is for: it is for striving towards the highest standards, and moving mankind forward thereby.