What is the point of studying French lesbian poetry? It may not be a matter to which you have ever given much thought. The inventor Sir James Dyson posed the question last week when he told an interviewer he wanted students encouraged to think about careers in engineering and science, rather than “wanting to go off and to study French lesbian poetry”.
His comments quickly triggered an impassioned defence of the (admittedly somewhat niche) literary pursuit from an unlikely source. On Wednesday, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, accused Sir James, designer of bagless vacuum cleaners and one of Britain’s richest men, of advocating “an anti-intellectual strain in British life”. Mr Gove declared himself “an enemy of those who would deprecate the study of French lesbian poetry”. Now the poets themselves have rallied to the defence of their craft – and challenged the inventor to try reading some serious poetry.
“People have told me these kinds of things my entire life, about the irrelevance of what I study and what I enjoy,” said Bridget Minamore, 21, poet and English student at University College London. “If it’s irrelevant, why do so many people do it? Why is it still around?”
Ms Minamore is speaking today at the first London Festival of Education, where teachers, writers and poets will join the Education Secretary to debate the future of British education. Top of the agenda, thanks to Sir James, will be a debate about the continued importance of poetry in universities, at a time when applications for humanities degrees are declining as the Government pushes what intellectuals have called a “mercantile” approach to higher education.
“Not everyone has to go to university in order to get a high-paid job at the end,” said Ms Minamore, who is a popular, self-published performance poet from east London. “I enjoy it and I want to learn more about it – to me that’s the whole point of learning and the whole point of education. If someone doesn’t know how poetry benefits the world then they can’t have read a beautiful love poem.”
She won support yesterday from the poet, playwright, and novelist Simon Armitage, who condemned Sir James for “seeing the world purely in terms of functionality”.
“He probably sees education as something that leads to a product in a very utilitarian way,” Mr Armitage said. “But what are we here for? We’re here to engage and to consider and to process thoughts. Finding a better way of sweeping the floor is all well and good – and this argument often comes up when we speak of funding. People say that, for that money, you could have had a hospital. But from my point of view, I’d rather be dead than not participating properly in life, and I feel I can only do that through language.”
Mark Grist, a former teacher turned poet and rapper who is also appearing at the festival, said that “education can be for education’s sake”.
Earlier this week, a group of 65 academics, including the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, launched the Council for the Defence of British Universities, to oppose Government policies that they fear are asserting market forces on academic study. Many universities have seen their humanities funding cut and applications for courses such as English, history and philosophy have declined in recent years. They fear that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has responsibility for university policy, has favoured science, technology, engineering and maths at the expense of humanities, in an attempt to boost Britain’s economy in the short term.
Speaking to head teachers on Wednesday, Mr Gove, whose Department for Education is responsible for schools but not universities, rounded on Sir James, saying: “Having devoted as much of my department’s discretionary budget as possible to attracting more teachers into maths and science subjects, including computer science I am certainly no enemy of equipping people with the skills required to master technology.
“But I am certainly an enemy of those who would deprecate the study of French lesbian poetry. Because the casual dismissal of poetry as though it were a useless luxury and its study a self-indulgence is a display of prejudice. It is another example of the bias against knowledge.”
Mr Armitage added that, far from being self-indulgent, poetry could hone skills useful to any society or economy. “The more control that you’ve got over language and the more you appreciate how much other people have controlled it, the better place you put yourself in,” he said. “I imagine that, in some way, that even applies to making vacuum cleaners. Language is the most powerful force in the world. It’s certainly a more powerful force than suction.”
As an introduction to the love of poetry, Mr Armitage suggested that Sir James should steer clear of French lesbian poetry and try Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings instead. “It’s one of the greatest books of poetry from the 20th century – a slice of philosophy and sociology that is unparalleled. The way Larkin captures and contains and expresses those ideas, 50 years on, is still breathtaking.”