Letter: UK ill served by book-learning

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Sir: The word "elitist" seems to crop up every time your writers discuss education. It covers two quite different attitudes.

Exclusive elitists want an educational system designed for the benefit of the cleverest few per cent. Not guilty, m'lud, and I know very few educators who are.

Missionary elitists believe there are real advantages to a style of thought that is historically associated with a small minority, and they want it distributed as widely as possible. Guilty as charged, and so are most of my colleagues.

The style I believe in assumes the right to query what claims mean, explore their implications, test them, and improve on them - and knows you can't do that unless you criticise and develop your own thought processes. It is intimately tied to research, which is why missionary elitists want students heavily exposed to people who are active in research. If I am overawed by received wisdom, how can I teach my students not to be?

The third party are the paternalists who think most of the poor dears need something easier - memorise passages from a pasteurised text, rote learn a few procedures, follow the instructions on the coursework pack. Those people thrive on popular suspicion of "elitism".