Message from the Dean: Putting Fear Behind Us

February 15, 2012

Fear of not getting a job, fear of losing a job. Fear of defaulting on student loans. Fear of falling off the fiscal cliff. Fear of global warming. Fear of random violence, fear of terrorism. Our lives seem to be defined by our fears unless, that is, we make a conscious effort to imagine a different way of giving them meaning. The university should be the place where we can do that, but it takes time and effort. Just being here is not enough to put our fears behind us.

We certainly are not the first to fear that the world as we have known it may come to an end. In England in the late sixteenth century, after decades of religious wars, the English believed that the world would end in 1588 at the hands of the invading Spanish Armada. Biblical prophecies reinforced this prediction. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, born in 1588, looking back on that date 84 years later with some understandable relief, was able to joke that his premature birth had been prompted by the fear that his mother felt when the Spanish Armada set sail. "For the rumor went everywhere through our towns that the last day for the nation was coming by fleet. And at that point my mother was filled with such fear that she bore twins, me and together with me fear."

In December 2007, as the RCAH was bringing its first semester to a close, the Great Recession of 2008 began. At that moment MSU brought forth twins, the RCAH and "together with it fear"--fear that the University would have to make deep budget reductions and raise tuition to balance its budget. Like Hobbes, who lived a long and productive life, we have outgrown that initial fear. Let's take another page from Hobbes' book. The parallel, I think, is striking.

Hobbes, known most famously for his description of what happens when fear gets the better of us (life becomes a "state of war" that is "nasty, brutish, and short"), did not think it had to be that way. Channeling our creative energy could lead to a better life. Hoping that he would put his religious critics at ease, he called this better life Leviathan, from the book of Job, and he argued it would be a state of peace in which life would, in his words, "advance toward delectation."

Hobbes even found the time to humorously describe in verse the fast pace of life in this better world. Life, he suggested, is indeed a race, and every appetite and aversion we might have a moment in this race. But, it was neither lonely nor cutthroat.

To see another fall, is disposition to laugh.
To hold fast by another, is to love.
To carry him on that so holdeth, is charity.
Continually to be out-gone, is misery.
Continually to out-go the next before, is felicity.
And to forsake the course, is to die.

Laughter, love and charity, Hobbes argued, should be as much a part of this race as the happiness that comes from success, as long as we do not "forsake the course."

As we enter 2013, our energy level seems to be at an all time high. More students are applying to the RCAH than ever before. Civic engagement work in Lansing and Detroit is bearing new fruit. The RCAH Alumni Association held its first formal meeting and is brimming with ideas for connecting with one another and current students. The faculty and students are embarking on an exciting initiative: the new college colloquium series "Wednesday Night Live" that will kick off in the fall with its own slate of special guests and opportunities for students to connect across class lines.

Just listing these events and activities can leave you breathless, but we should remember Hobbes' advice. A well-run race can be a thing of charity and laughter, not an occasion for celebrating when others stumble. One of the most distinctive qualities of the RCAH--visible in the individuals that make it up as well as its groups and partnerships--is the equal concern and respect that everyone has for one another. I see this at talk-backs after theatre performances like the wonderful Urbandale play that students in RCAH 291 and 292B performed this semester, the interaction between university and community along the Michigan Avenue Corridor in our new project, "The Ave,"  and the sustained work our students and their partners at Peckham, Inc. have done in the Art@Work project that is being unveiled this month. I see it in the work our students are doing with younger elementary, middle school, and high school students all around the state and beyond our borders in study abroad and study away programs that we celebrate regularly. 

At a time when the euphoria of anti-authoritarian movements around the world are collapsing into new forms of sectarian violence, it would be easy to feel like we are on the verge of slipping back into an Hobbesian state of war. Instead, we ought to put this fear behind us and remember the world that we are creating here and now. It may not be on the scale of that giant sea monster, Leviathan, but it has the beauty and strength that comes from careful and collaborative work with others whose skills and knowledge complement our own and whose different cultures enrich our common lives. Whether we are working in Urbandale, Peckham, Inc., Edgewood Village, or the many small schools and organizations that RCAH partners with locally and globally, equal concern and respect, not fear, has been and can continue to be the driver in our race.