19 November 2012

À la recherche de la poésie française lesbienne

In a post after the death of Christopher Hitchens almost a year ago, I mentioned in passing the British educational system’s encouragement of “Two Cultures”, essentially science and the arts. This unfortunate separation was originally identified by CP Snow as long ago as 1959 and there are occasional reminders of its existence. I have mentioned Sir James Dyson’s speaking up for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) before, so I was interested to read an article based on an interview he recently gave to The Times (£), whose science and technology supplement, Eureka, ended recently. (The article was headed, rather oddly, ‘Dyson inventor says schools should focus on science, not arts’ – he may be ‘inventor Dyson’ but surely not ‘Dyson inventor’, just ‘Dyson’?). He was reported thus:
Britain has turned its back on what made it great, with too many students choosing to read humanities at university, Sir James Dyson has said in an interview with The Times.
But the engineer and entrepreneur infuriated some who said he was trying to revive an outdated “two cultures” view of science versus humanities. Sir James, who became Britain’s 22nd richest man by developing bagless vacuum cleaners, said: “The more sophisticated you get as a nation the more you turn your back on the thing that made you wealthy. You don’t choose the difficult, hard work, of science and technology and engineering.”  
He said we should talk more about technology 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”.
Notice that the reader is told of the existence of counter-arguments even before any report of what Dyson actually said! And of course the red-rag-bull reference to “French lesbian poetry” set off the arts-based intelligentsia in the media and elsewhere, most significantly the Education Department, whose Secretary of State, Michael Gove, in a speech soon after The Times article said:
This anti-intellectual strain in British life, and thinking, may have protected us from following the sort of ideological fashions that captured continental minds over the last century. As has been pointed out before, both fascism and Marxism were ideas so foolish only an intellectual could have believed in them. But 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.  
… This bias against knowledge manifested itself most recently when the otherwise saintly inventor Sir James Dyson had a crack at people who want to go to university to learn French lesbian poetry rather than applying themselves to matters technical. 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.
A quick Google search for “French lesbian poetry” now turns up dozens of articles agreeing with Gove and none seeming to support Dyson. An example from the left is Glosswitch in the New Statesman, in a piece headed ‘Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle James Dyson is dead wrong - studying things like "French lesbian poetry” can make people's lives better, even if they don't suck dirt up off carpets.’:
Take me, for instance. I’m British. I have a BA in languages, an MPhil in European Literature and a PhD in German and I’ve never invented a single piece of useful household equipment in my life.
and in a loftier manner on the right from Allan Massie in a Daily Telegraph blog:
I would guess that James Dyson is engaging in a bit of guesswork himself. Not having access to the statistics – has he? – I don’t know how many people are taking French Lesbian Poetry as their special subject in A-Level exams. I would however be surprised to find that the number was big enough to doom British manufacturing, as he seems to suggest. This hunch is fortified – if you can fortify a hunch – by reading the entry on Gay & Lesbian Writing in The Oxford Companion to French Literature. Though it runs to three columns, the only Lesbian poets mentioned are Nathalie Barney (1876-1972) and Renée Vivien (1877-1909).
accompanied by a photograph of Renée (above), English-born apparently, and seemingly a bit of a poseuse.

And so forth. At which point it is worth noting that Gove, although playing nicely to his gallery of admiring journalists (he was one himself once), has no ministerial responsibility for higher education, which Dyson was referring to not A level. University education is the responsibility of the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Department under Vince Cable and specifically David Willetts, and The Times quoted the latter as having “… thought Sir James’s comments unhelpful”:
“The true source of UK greatness is the breadth of our research activities — from nuclear physics to history and ethics. We’ve got great life sciences, which come up with great drugs; the aid programme in Africa that sponsors a great vaccine. But then local leaders fear the vaccine is a plot to make them ill. To get humans to take the vaccine you need anthropologists and linguists who can understand the culture. The future is multidisciplinary."
But no doubt BIS are appreciative of the James Dyson Foundation’s initiatives like the Royal College of Arts Dyson Building. Willetts as a BIS minister must be well aware of the economic prospects for the UK, which would be grim enough if we had a dozen Dysons and we don’t. But as Universities minister in particular he must also be well aware that the UK’s higher education system is turning into a house of cards held together by the readiness of students to take on large loans - long-term debt to be repaid from future income. Little consideration seems to be given to the realities of the graduate employment market by those in well-paid media jobs where they can join in the sniping at ‘the otherwise saintly Dyson’. Scratch the biographical surface of the commentariat and you often find that not only did its members mostly go to Oxbridge, but also that they are so well-connected by family or background that it is little surprise that they are where they are. But what are the prospects for an ordinary young graduate who has been studying for example French literature or history at a university ranked below the top 20 in the league tables? Many arts graduates find themselves in a call centre, supermarket or other workplace where knowledge of poetry, if not a useless luxury, is likely to be of marginal relevance, and they might well conclude that another course of study could have been more sensible.

Perhaps Dyson should have known better by now than to come out with the comment that he did, but possibly his exasperation got the better of him. After all, his company is engaged in a continuing battle with  international competitors to hold on to intellectual property let alone expand it. The Dyson Company’s headquarters are in Malmesbury, the birthplace of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (left), so the boss taking a Hobbesian view of the nature of failure in a competitive struggle is understandable:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
It’s a great pity if Dyson’s underlying point about individual choices in higher education is not being debated because The Times alighted on one particular phrase.

(By the way Malmesbury is in Wiltshire in SW England, so I should point out that, although an admirer of Dyson, I gain no personal benefit from supporting him. In fact I’ve never been able to afford any of his products, but I always think the Airblade hand drier is a brilliant device when I use one!)

ADDENDUM 21 November

The Times (£) published a letter from Sir James Dyson today:
Sir, The comments attributed to me in this paper caused confusion. I was taken aback by the headline (“How to make Britain Great? More science, less French lesbian poetry, says Dyson”, Nov 10); those were your thoughts and words, not mine.  
Unfortunately Michael Gove, Mary Beard and others have used that headline to leverage their own causes and to reassert the arts. Don’t be misled; I’m a supporter of the arts and humanities — my concern is the shortage of engineers in Britain.  
Engineering, science, technology and making things are all being marginalised. We need the hard skills of engineering and science to complement our excellent arts base, otherwise where will our future exportable technologies come from?  
This year’s cavernous deficit of engineering graduates is 60,000. By 2017 we will have a deficit of 217,000 engineers — a staggering shortfall. We ignore it at our peril. The UK depends on the engineering sector for one fifth of GDP, employing 5.6 million people across 550,000 enterprises. 
We must make sure students are given a broad knowledge and the skills to grow this part of the economy. We need poets. But the development of patentable, exportable technology depends on a ready supply of engineers.  
Sir James Dyson  
Chair, James Dyson Foundation

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