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The mission of the college is to weave together the passion, imagination, humor, and candor of the arts and humanities to promote individual well being and the common good.
Students, faculty, and community partners in the arts and humanities have the power to focus critical attention on the public issues we face and the opportunities we have to resolve them. The arts and humanities not only give us the pleasure of living in the moment, but also the wisdom to make sound judgments and good choices.
The mission, then, is to see things as they are, to hear things as others may, to tell these stories as they should be told, and to contribute to the making of a better world.
The Residential College in the Arts and Humanities is built on four cornerstones: world history, art and culture, ethics, and engaged learning. Together they define an open-minded public space within which students, faculty, staff, and community partners can explore today's common problems and create shared moral visions of the future.
The main currents of history connect and divide peoples in various regions of the globe. World history is defined by these currents, what they have meant, and what they have left in their wake. World history is not the story of a unified world system told from the top down, but rather the relationships and influences fluidly linking the stories of many peoples and cultures. We can see these stories in the technology we rely on, the clothes we wear, the monuments we honor (and topple), and the films we devour. We hear them in the music that entertains us and prompts us as consumers. We internalize them, sometimes literally, in the food that sustains us.
As speakers, writers, and readers; and as singers, composers, artists, and dancers we make sense of our worlds through languages and other modes of expressions that have evolving dialects as well as basic structures. As readers, listeners, and viewers, we respond to a ubiquitous hybrid culture—from billboards and insistent electronic advertisements to drawings, collages, sculpture, and functional architecture. Who we are as peoples, not just as individuals, depends on our cultural identities, and these identities are shaped by the visual and performing arts.
Which cultural identities we display proudly, wear lightly on our sleeve, or hold at a distance are often highly contested moral questions. Which historical legacies we artistically memorialize and which ones we reject because we feel they are beneath us are matters for ethical judgment, even if a conscious consideration of ethics often seems to be lacking in the choices many people make. Which languages we use to express our deepest feelings, how we move to the rhythms of nature, how well we respond to calls for help and expressions of joy—these are all matters of some choice. We face these challenges on an individual daily basis in our families and communities, and we sometimes face them on a grander scale when as a people we must decide how to allocate scarce resources and keep our word. Ethics, in the sense of how we should live our lives, is an integral part of negotiating between competing and cross-cutting cultural identities.
In order to grasp the main currents of world history, the cultural challenges and opportunities that it has created, and the ethical values that are at stake, students and faculty of the RCAH are engaged in a variety of ways. Through the relationships and projects nurtured in this residential setting, they take even greater pleasure in the texts they study and the scores and scripts they perform. They develop compassion for the people with whom they work in diverse communities, whether they are near or far, whether in their native language or in another language. They learn to compose their thoughts more clearly, communicate them more effectively, and reflect on them more cooperatively so that they can be of use in the world.
Within the space marked off by these four cornerstones, what common problems and moral visions are likely to be discovered and created?
The number of challenges and problems continues to grow, but the most important ones—poverty, hunger, and war—are hardly new. What is new is the way in which these problems are increasingly entangled with the traditional concerns of the arts and humanities. The fates of peoples in the least developed countries and in the poorest regions and communities of more developed countries are linked to our own along new vectors of exchange and resistance. Increasingly, for example, the films of Hollywood and Bollywood—and their ideals and demons—reach well beyond the borders of these metropoles. Increasingly, the incomes of families in poorer countries depend on the remittances sent back to them from their relatives in the more developed world, and citizens of the developed world push back with new laws restricting immigration and cultural liberties. Increasingly, the very wealth of the developed world depends on its ability to extract natural resources in the least developed countries and market them elsewhere.
This global flux in cultural goods, human capital, and natural resources has given the traditional problems of poverty, hunger, and war greater complexity and urgency. The complexity and urgency are most apparent in phenomena such as environmental pollution and armed conflict, both of which continue to escalate. But they are also felt in neighborhoods and on campuses here and abroad where cultures intersect, blend, and sometimes collide over the laws governing intellectual property, the rights of foreign students and workers, and the competing interpretations of fair trade made by subsistence village farmers and large agricultural research companies. Issues such as reproductive health, genetically modified foods, and war crimes cannot be discussed, let alone resolved, in this fluid context without coming to terms with history, art, culture, and ethical judgment because these are the terms in which we live our lives and understand these issues.
If the most common problems of the 21st century are this daunting, what moral visions can we possibly share that will be equal to the task, and how should students in the RCAH learn about them? Whatever visions we consider, they must be broad and inclusive. They must be firmly planted in a historical understanding of what has been possible and what is likely to fail. Shared moral visions cannot be legislated as imperatives or even prudential maxims. They must be realistically imagined, creatively designed, and cooperatively revised on the ground with those who must live with their consequences.
RCAH students, faculty, and community partners recognize the wisdom of past generations and their legacies. They are necessary points of departure for their own thinking. Using the considerable material ready at hand, they have their work cut out for them—and the RCAH provides them with the space, the tools, and the help to do it.