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'University about living not just learning' - Simon Armitage receives honourary doctorate

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage insists University is about “living not just learning.”

The 56-year-old, who succeeded Carol Ann Duffy to become the 21st poet laureate in May, is currently Professor of Poetry at the University of Leeds after fulfilling the same role at Oxford. 

Speaking ahead of receiving a doctorate of humane letters (honoris causa) from Liverpool Hope University, he said students should use their time at university to grow as people as well as focusing on their future careers.

The Yorkshireman, who also writes for radio, television, film and stage, also expressed concern that liberal arts degrees are dwindling in popularity at UK universities.

Professor Armitage, who was awarded the CBE for services to poetry in 2010, said university should not be considered only as a means to an end.

“We have noticed a drop in numbers of applications for subjects such as English and I’m sure it’s to do with concerns students and their families have about getting a job at the end of it,” he said.

“People are choosing a course of study that will lead more directly to employment.

“But University is not just about learning it is about living.

“I have encouraged my daughter’s generation to go off and have three years away from home for any reason.

“When you talk about getting employed – the funny thing is that in my line of work if you have to get a job you’ve failed.

“The art itself can be a career rather than having a salaried career for the sake of it.”

Last month the Augar report into post-18 education raised fears that the Government’s willingness to make up for the short-fall in its proposed cuts to tuition fees would be weighted towards degrees linked to higher earnings such as science, technology, engineering and medicine.

In response Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, urged that “any funding settlement should continue to support a full range of academic disciplines.”

Speaking before Hope’s graduation ceremony at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Prof Armitage also said he felt “privileged” that some of his poems are being taught on the national curriculum.

“Some poets are grumpy about their work being studied but I see it as a privilege,” he said.

“I got interested in poetry at school when I was 15 or 16 so to have my work taught in that environment, and to think of it capturing the ear or eye of some sleepy kid at the back of the class like I was, is great.

“Having contemporary work on the syllabus should be encouraged.

“Each generation we move another 25 years away from Chaucer or Shakespeare and it can become more remote.

“There is a wide spectrum in that 15-16-year-old age group; from those with no interest in poetry or literature to those who are really engaged by it.

“Contemporary work gets people to tune in that bit more and maybe find their way back into being curious.”

Prof Armitage said he fears young people are finding it harder than ever to develop a sense empathy.

“It is an incredible life skill I think,” he said.

“It’s honing your imagination to the point that you are empathetic and sympathetic with others, even people you might consider your opposite.

“I worry about the lack of day-dreaming time kids have these days. They don’t get the chance to just live with their own imagination and use it to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. That’s how you build empathy.

“I have heard more people, from all sides of the political spectrum, talk about it.

“Theresa May alluded to it in her exit speech when she talked about how debate is being closed down. It’s a growing concern.

“There are knee-jerk reactions dominating and in turn they generate binary responses; right or wrong - a ‘like’ or condemnation.”

Prof Armitage said he has “99% completed” an album of spoken word and music with ambient electronic band LYR, and has also almost finished two commissioned poems.

He added that he was delighted to receive his doctorate from Hope.

“The really heartening thing about when Hope wrote to me was that they wanted to recognise the work I have done in relation to people who are struggling and on the margins of society,” said the former probation officer.

Published on 22/07/2019