Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"One Function in Particular": Professionalism and Specialization in Daniel Deronda

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"One Function in Particular": Professionalism and Specialization in Daniel Deronda

Article excerpt

Indeed he builds his goodness up So high, it topples down to the other side And makes a sort of badness.

--Aurora Leigh, III: 492-94

The process of professionalization during the nineteenth century took shape amid a rhetorical contest over the meanings and values of professionalism in which the purported service ethic of professionals played a major role. Given an ideological climate that Stefan Collini has aptly characterized as a "culture of altruism," in which only unself-interested actions and motives were held to be morally justifiable, advocates of the professions sought to explain their own professionalization in terms of public service while fending off often satirical criticism of their alleged self-interestedness. (1) For example, doctors urged that formal training and credentializing were necessary to protect the public from quackery, but their critics among political economists countered that such measures were only intended to create an artificial scarcity that augmented the dignity--and fees--of the medical practitioners (see Corfield and Searle).

George Eliot, in some ways practically a textbook example of the culture of altruism, explicitly used her fiction as a means to cultivate in readers the impulses of empathy and self-effacement that she believed could inspire people to eschew egoism and embrace altruism. However, in representing egoistic and altruistic characters making use of their professional expertise, she rigorously examined the limits of altruism as well as those of egoism. Dorothea Barrett has therefore rightly said that "the one central and recurring problem of the George Eliot canon" is "seeking a solution to egoism ... without falling in to masochistic self-sacrifice" (83-84). All George Eliot's novels examine in some way the tension between the desires of the individual and the claims of the community, neither of which, she finds, can be wholly sublimated. The careers of George Eliot's professional characters incarnate the debate about professionalization in ways that make visible the problems inherent to the "exhaustive polarity between egoism and altruism" that Collini details (65). Cases of egoistic villainy such as Tito Melema and Nicholas Bulstrode are easy to identify and easy for George Eliot to criticize, but the precise alternative to the "moral stupidity" of these and other egoists remains difficult to determine (Middlemarch 205). Eliot is equally aware of the dangers of the reverse problem of excessive self-denial, which is, if anything, even more perplexing. In her first and last works of fiction, in the characters of Edgar Tryan and Daniel Deronda, she attends to this problem specifically. These two men, both of whom are admirable for their repudiation of egoism and their highly-developed capacity for fellow-feeling, nevertheless face a real danger of self-annihilation because of these very characteristics. This central and ubiquitous tension between egoism and altruism is best approached in terms of professionalism. (2)

Tracing the cynical response to professionalism to the present day, Bruce Robbins documents the continuing perception of professionals, particularly academics, as a morally degraded class who have been given the institutional rewards of status and privilege in a tacit exchange for abandoning social awareness and the plight of the underprivileged (presumably the province of vocation). Those who accept being professionalized are thereby self-disqualified from working in the public interest. Throughout the book Robbins challenges the assumption that professionals, by definition, are more interested in promoting themselves and securing their comfort than in serving the public. Citing the examples of social workers and feminist academics, Robbins argues for a model that can accommodate an individual's working both in public and self-interest simultaneously, so that professionals may work to protect their occupational interests and serve the community at the same time and indeed in the same activities. …

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