14/11/2012 19:35 GMT | Updated 14/11/2012 19:37 GMT

Michael Gove: French Lesbian Poetry Should Be Valued In 'Anti-Intellectual' UK

The UK is suffering from a "bias against knowledge", Education Secretary Michael Gove has claimed.

Certain subjects - like French lesbian poetry - are dismissed by some as "useless luxuries", he said.

Others have railed against plans to raise the school leaving age and higher qualifications for teachers.

michael gove

Michael Gove: A fan of French lesbian poetry

Gove argued that while it is important to study subjects that teach vital skills, it is also important to study for the sake of knowledge and learning.

He told the Independent Academies Association Conference in central London: "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.

"The bias against knowledge was displayed when MPs argued against raising the school leaving age, when trade unions argued against demanding higher qualifications for teachers and when teachers demanded that texts in literature classes be relevant rather than revelatory for their readers.

"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."

His remarks come after Sir James, who became Britain's 22nd richest man by developing bagless vacuum cleaners, 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".

Gove added: "We should demand every school is a good school because of the potential of education to power economic growth, advance social mobility and make opportunity more equal.

"But it is also important to emphasise that education is a good in itself - beyond, indeed above - any economic, social or political use to which it might be put.

"Because education properly understood - a liberal education which includes the disciplines of language, literature and mathematics, science, geography and history, music, art and design - introduces children to the habits of thought and bodies of knowledge which are the highest expressions of human thought and creativity."

Gove also told delegates that passing exams gives children a sense of satisfaction and happiness.

Arguing for rigorous testing in England's schools, he said that easy exams are worse than no exams as they fail to motivate pupils and support those who need it.

American cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham has suggested that students are motivated to learn if they enjoy "the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought", Mr Gove said.

"We know that happiness comes from earned success," the minister says.

"There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep, or sustained, as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence," Mr Gove said.

"Exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it."