As Emma’s Mr. Knightley demonstrates, effective public service doesn’t necessarily come from joining the political class.
It’s fascinating, the disdain with which Jane Austen’s character Emma Woodhouse treats the farmer Robert Martin. Emma, a member of her small town’s aristocracy, is a professional do-gooder. She has been raised with a commendable awareness of her responsibility as a member of the privileged class, and spends a great deal of her time visiting the poor. Yet when confronted with the hardworking farmer (a romantic interest of her friend Harriet Smith), she avoids direct interaction, and informs Harriet that since the man does not need her help, “he is as much above my interest as he is below it.”
Emma, like many people her age in my own generation, has a strong sense that her role in society is two-tiered: socially, to interact only with her peers; professionally, to help the less fortunate.
In the context of 19th-century Highbury aristocracy, I suspect most people don’t catch the similarity. Yet I realized recently that her attitude remarkably mirrors an assumption I’ve made for most of my life.
The underlying question, for Emma and for me, is this: does my profession have to be service-oriented?
The prevailing wisdom among college-educated people under 30 is that the answer is yes. My generation set volunteering records in college, and as documented by a recent New York Times article, is headed for the public and nonprofit sectors in unprecedented numbers. The recession has intensified this trend—2009 college graduates were 16% more likely to work for the government and 11% more likely to work for a nonprofit than grads in 2008. We don’t interact much with the Robert Martins of the world—blue-collar workers and people with non-intellectual skill sets (sometimes they even make us nervous).
Those of us who, like me, have an interest in politics or functioning communities are even more this way. It often doesn’t even cross our minds that we would, say, start a business, or work for one after our obligatory high school summer jobs. We intern on Capitol Hill or at a think tank, and then either try to break into the political class that is so royally ruining our country, or enter the nonprofit sector that exists to try to mitigate the effects of its folly. 70% of us, Stephanie South notes, say we’d seriously consider running a nonprofit someday, and—since we might “need” to work for a business down the road—we’re putting pressure on businesses to get into the “social responsibility” scene.
Mark Steyn put this into perspective pretty bluntly a few weeks ago. He was talking to what he called a “trustfundie Vermont student” who told him her ambition was “to work for a nonprofit.”
“What kind of ambition is that?” he asked, bewildered.
“But she meant it, and so do most of her friends. Doesn’t care particularly what kind of ‘non-profit’ it is: as long as no profits are involved, she’s eager to run up a six-figure college debt for a piece of the non-action. The entire state of Vermont is becoming a non-profit. And so in a certain sense is an America that’s 15 trillion dollars in the hole, and still cheerfully spending away.”
I am not as quick as Steyn to disparage anything that doesn’t have a profit margin. But he gets at the deeper underlying question—not about the value of social responsibility, but about where precisely it’s supposed to fit into our lives.
For many of us, something like for Emma, it’s assumed to be a 9-5 job. Somebody is supposed to pay us to be socially responsible. We get salaries or stipends and devote our full effort to that cause. Sometimes this is through short-term adventures like AmeriCorps, which apparently are supposed to allow us to pursue profit guilt-free for the rest of our lives. But just as frequently, it’s through a full time job—working at a charity, or a think tank, or in the bureaucracy. As someone interested in politics, I am supposed to pursue my interest through advanced degrees, and academia or public policy organizations—in other words, I’m supposed to join the ranks of professional experts and professional heroes (see my recent article on heroism for more on that).
I do not want to overplay my analogy, my critique of Emma, or my implicit criticism of my own generation. After all, Emma does do good in her community; and has the moral high ground over many in my age cohort, in that she feels her responsibilities to that community rather than to humanity or other groups in the abstract. And there is much to be admired in anyone who wants to dedicate her life, or any substantial portion of it, to serving others.
But Emma is not portrayed as the most generous figure by Austen. She has a contrasting figure in the story—her eventual husband, Mr. Knightley. Knightley is just as wealthy as the Woodhouses, is just as respected a citizen, and has just as strong a sense of social responsibility. Yet he isn’t a professional do-gooder; he is a farmer (in other words, he works for profit). In the Millennial narrative, this makes him selfish. But where the blue-collar Robert Martin was beneath Emma’s notice, he is actively aided and even employed by Mr. Knightley.
I think it’s because Mr. Knightley has bought into a different vision of civic responsibility from Emma’s. In his worldview, providing for his family and helping his community are related but distinct endeavors—yet his vision seems to me to be ultimately more healthily integrated than that of Miss Woodhouse.
Providing for his family is Knightley’s higher priority, and doing it is—by itself—a noble task; as is his job itself, which provides services (food) for the town. Yet unlike for Emma, for Mr. Knightley, the second endeavor (helping his community) can never be “left at the office” at the end of the day. It’s not something he is professionally responsible for as a job; it’s something he is personally responsible for–and does on the side–regardless of his occupation. Because of this, Robert Martin is neither above nor beneath Mr. Knightley’s interest—as a member of the community who has a relationship with the wealthier man, he has a claim on Knightley’s help and advice, which Knightley doesn’t hesitate to give.
It is certainly better PR to get plugged in with the rich and powerful—as it is national politicians and their advisers who get the media coverage today, Emma is likewise known throughout the community as a budding young philanthropist. But Robert Martin (in her view) needs none of her help because his profile doesn’t fit her philanthropic mission statement. Mr. Knightley, meanwhile, has real ability, concrete accomplishments to his name, greater respect among his acquaintance, and a pivotal role in making a community work—not because the last is his job, but because it is his responsibility. Emma is a philanthropist, but Mr. Knightley is a citizen.
The desire to do good is one of the best things about my generation. Yet I think that many of us would do better to be citizens than to be philanthropists. For most of us, it’s our lives, not our jobs, that require civic dedication.
This post was originally published September 19 2011.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.