Education should be about moral, social, cultural and aesthetic development, said Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
His warning follows a research study from Manchester University which concluded that primary schools have cut back on subjects such as geography and history to make way for the Government's priorities, maths and English.
And teacher-training courses have downgraded the arts and music to emphasise the basics.
Dr Tate, giving the fifth annual education lecture at King's College London, this week, said: "It is crucial that the education system falls over backwards to maintain standards of academic rigour and personal behaviour, sees itself as leading society rather than following, and is unafraid of being accused of elitism, if by elitism is meant introducing children to great artists like Shakespeare and Mozart or transmitting shared values.
"Decisions about education are inseparable from those about our values, about the society we want and about our fundamental ends and purposes as human beings.
"Debates dominated by the urgent need to re-establish the basics of literacy and numeracy and support global capitalism, do not fully address deeper issues."