In Defense of the Utility of Humanities

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño. Dean. IE Business School

3 December 2014

The controversy unleashed in France after Sarkozy’s attack on the classical French novel “The Princess of Cleves” serves to remind us that the Humanities are useful in the workplace as well as being beautiful.

“Could a seventeenth-century novel bring down a twenty-first century presidency?” (1) This question, raised in The New Yorker in 2012, alluded to the imbroglio that ensued as a result of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments about “The Princess of Cleves”, a classical French novel. At a campaign event in 2006, Sarkozy expressed the opinion that only “a sadist or an imbecile –I leave the choice to you- would ask candidates for jobs in the civil service about The Princess of Cleves”. (2) This was no accidental verbal slip, given that Sarkozy waxed ironic about the same novel in subsequent comments a few years after. In fact, his government reduced or eliminated questions on literature in the exams for access to low-level civil servant positions. Andre Santini, Secretary of State at that time, justified this decision on the grounds that entrance exams to public administration should avoid “overly academic and ridiculously difficult questions which reveal nothing about real aptitudes to fill a position” and expressed a preference for the inclusion of common sense questions. (3)

Notwithstanding divergent opinions, The Princess of Cleves is an enjoyable piece of literature, particularly for those who love historical novels. Its author, Madame de Lafayette (1634-93) was one of the most active intellectuals and writers of her time and a friend of other illustrious writers like Racine and La Rouchefoucauld. She regularly attended the Salons, which were cultural gatherings where guests discussed and gossiped about politics, literature, religion and philosophy. As lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV –The Sun King-, it gave her first-hand access to royal court affairs, an insider perspective vividly described in her works.

The Prince of Cleves has been categorised as one of the first psychological novels, since it describes the opposing sentiments of love and duty experienced by the protagonist. The action takes place during the kingdom of Henry II of France in the mid-sixteenth century, when different opposing factions were struggling for power at court and political relations were intertwined with personal and sexual affairs: “Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more lustre in France”, says the opening sentence of the novel.

The protagonist, Mademoiselle de Chartres, the most beautiful sixteen year-old woman of her time according to the author, is brought by her mother to the royal court to search for an affluent husband. There she finds the Prince of Cleves, for whom she does not feel true love but whom she marries. The prince, however, loves her passionately and believes that the course of time will bring him reciprocal feelings from his wife. While socialising at court, the princess meets the Duke of Nemours and they both fall in love at first sight. They exchange their mutual emotions but never consummate their affair. The prince learns about his wife’s mental infidelity, falls ill from sadness and on his deathbed requests from his wife never to marry Nemours. The remorseful princess decides to fulfill her last marital promise and retires to a convent where she dies soon after in what should have been her prime. Nemours’ loving passion eclipses with time and he forgets his beloved.

The novel’s plot brings to mind other great literary works focused on love, marriage, adultery and related personal conflicts. It is included in the curriculum of many liberal arts colleges and serves the purpose of analyzing duty, the differences between love and sex, as well as how personal relations evolve in different ages according to social customs. It also provides many insights for practical life, like the advice received by the princess from her mother: “If you judge from appearances in a court, you will often be deceived; truth and appearances seldom go together.”

Indeed, The Princess of Cleves’ position as a classic of French literature seems well deserved and Sarkozy’s accusation seems somewhat clumsy, even from a political perspective. Not surprisingly, it caused one of the most intense cultural debates in France in recent times and it was echoed widely elsewhere (4). A long list of French intellectuals defended the relevance and values of the book and public readings of its passages were held at different places. In 2011, Régis Sauder, a respected French filmmaker, directed the documentary movie “Nous, princesses de Clèves”, which is about a group of Lycée teenagers who are preparing to take their Baccalauréat by reading Cleves and analyzing what the novel means for their own lives. The academic world responded too. The École Normale Superieure defied Sarkozy by including Cleves as part of its admissions exam. Furthermore, prompted by public debate, the book was chosen by a selected group of literati as the third best novel in history, only after Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Joyce’s “Ulysses”. All this renewed attention to the sleeping classic prompted new editions and a big jump in sales. Was this an overreaction driven by the French cultural establishment against Sarkozy’s anti-elitist demagoguery?

It would hardly be acceptable to qualify Sarkozy’s attack as anti-intellectual, particularly considering that France’s state budget for culture increased by over 20% during his mandate, while spending on culture declined across other European countries over the same period.

Sarkozy’s comments on requiring job skills rather than general culture may attract popular support. However, the mistake here lies in saying that the two things are mutually exclusive. Nurturing the necessary practical skills to implement any job does not preclude cultivating general knowledge. Furthermore, I believe that the exercise of any profession in today’s knowledge society requires at least a decent cultural background. The Humanities and the Liberal Arts serves as a cohesive element when it comes to integrating the knowledge and the skills of any profession, as well as helping us to understand our complex world and societal interaction. Moreover, it would be shocking to ask candidates who apply for citizenship in any country, which is the case across the board, to pass general cultural tests that are not applicable to the civil servants who examine them.

Job training that is too practical or applied, centered mostly in solving procedures or giving right answers to set questions, may become obsolete quickly because it can be replaced by technology. In fact, the difference between interacting face to face with a person and filling forms through the Internet, when dealing with the public administration or in any other business, is precisely the human and cultural resourcefulness of the individual who interfaces with the customer.

It is misleading to consider that the Humanities are useless for practical jobs. The quote from Oscar Wilde “all art is quite useless” should be understood in the sense that learning general culture does not have the same immediate applicability as learning a procedure or preparing for a test of ready-made answers. However, it provides a rich cultural heritage that is essential for any profession in which the human factor plays an important role.

Sarkozy’s attack on Cleves may have a second populist motive. Cultural knowledge is associated with social background in the majority of cases, and general knowledge exams may discriminate against less educated, lower social-class candidates applying for jobs. This argument is true and unquestionable, particularly in emerging countries, but it is also perverse. The challenge is not to lower the bar for accessing jobs, but to provide universal access to formal education and universities, as well as enhancing the value of Humanities as a rich heritage for the academic background and life of every individual. I believe that technology-based education, open courseware and MOOCs, along with other future and promising new developments, may be part of the solution to this challenge.

One of the main takeaways from this article is that the Humanities and the Liberal Arts should be present in our learning activities throughout our lives, from beginning to end. Not only will they give more meaning, color and joy, but they will also help us to face the uncertain complexities and demands of tomorrow’s jobs.

(1) Elisabeth Zerofsky, On Presidents and Princesses, The New Yorker, November 8th, 2012
(3) Ibidem


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