Education secretary Michael Gove has defended the study of the arts, including French lesbian poetry, this week as he accused the engineer and inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, Sir James Dyson, of ‘anti-intellectualism’.
Michael Gove’s comments came after Dyson, Britain’s 22nd richest man, said that we should talk about technology more so that “little Angelina wanting to go off to study French lesbian poetry will suddenly realise that things like keeping an aircraft industry, developing nuclear energy, high-speed trains, all these things are important”.
At the Independent Academies Association Conference in central London, Gove said, “I fear the anti-intellectual bias in our way of life has, at times, become a bias against knowledge and a suspicion of education as a good in itself.”
He went on to say, “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 as selfindulgence is a display of prejudice. It is another example of the bias against knowledge.”
Dyson’s comments appear to have sparked controversy within Oxford. Dr Jennifer Yee, tutor in French at Christ Church told Cherwell, “The reference to ‘little Angelina’ seems to suggest a return to the sort of hearty unabashed sexism one associates with the 1950s rather than the 2010s, but I confess I am rather puzzled by the more specific reference to French lesbian poetry. Three possibilities spring to mind: 1) this was simply intended as a homophobic slight; 2) Dyson was making a rather erudite reference to the Franco-British poetess Renée Vivien; 3) Dyson was actually thinking of the (heterosexual) poet Charles Baudelaire.”
She continued, “If little Angelina decided one day to work alongside other British employees of Airbus near Toulouse, or Électricité de France, she could perhaps rely on French interpreters to get by. I still think she would have missed out on a wonderful experience reading Baudelaire’s poetry at University. She would have thought less about her own language and the nature of language in general; she would have thought less about sexuality, the nature of evil, and the creation of art.’
Dr Carole Bourne-Taylor at Brasenose College was sceptical about the perceived differences between the arts and sciences, saying, “Sir James Dyson has a rather dogmatic style that I wish I had; he is a brilliant engineer and gets the headlines in a way I could only dream of in my pursuit of ‘study for the sake of knowledge’. We can be truly grateful that Sir James (and now Michael Gove) has given us a little publicity that would otherwise not have come our way! He is a philanthropist as well as a brilliant engineer: the Dyson Foundation has done much for education, for example, through the schools’ ‘education box’ that is designed to inspire young minds.“In both the humanities and sciences, a lateral and inquisitive mind is the key.
‘So when ‘little Angelina’ (or ‘little James’, perhaps?) pursues an interest in the unusual, we rejoice. That clever turn of mind that revolutionised the way we clean our carpets is surely the same beast! I suspect that Sir James Dyson and I probably share the same ground when it comes to our eagerness to not only identify and nurture that quirk of mind that is genius, but to enable it to bring forth, improved social mobility and opportunity. We are both in the same field, just at different ends.”
Second year biologist, Sarah Worsley, agreed, saying, “The world would be a very dull and uninspired place if we all studied the same thing. Understanding our culture and differences in society is just as important as inventing new and wonderful things and the two are probably interlinked more than we might think.”
Second year chemist, Gogulan Karunanithy warned, “Though it pains me to say this, on this occasion I agree with Gove. Whilst I agree that technical subjects should be encouraged, if students taking these courses are not motivated (and would rather be reading French lesbian poetry in a field somewhere) all that you’re creating is a generation of disillusioned and probably unproductive scientists and engineers.”
Magdalen biologist, Peter Gleeson sympathised a little more with Dyson’s opinion, saying, “I think it is fair to say that as a society we need medics and engineers and research scientists, and from that perspective it seems fair to say that the study of arts subjects is an optional extra, or a bit of a luxury.’
However, second year French and German student at Keble College, Brendan Fletcher, defended the study of French poetry and the arts, saying that, “Whilst it probably isn’t entirely useful for designing vacuum cleaners, it opens our eyes to other cultures, perspectives and who we are.”