Which instructor would you give the last seat on your life raft to?

MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich

Math: The root of it all?

liferaft-debate.jpgNow here’s an event that shows some intellectual playfulness: The Life Raft Debate.

It pits a handful of instructors against each other in an attempt to determine which is most valuable to society.

The scenario (according to the program):

There has been a nuclear war, and the survivors (the student audience) are setting sail to rebuild society from the ground up. There is a group of academic types vying to get on the raft, and only one seat is left. Each professor has to argue that his or her discipline is the one indespensible area of study that the new civilization will need to flourish.

Here are the contestants and their main lines of argument: 

  • Math (Jim Leslie): Math is the one art that subsumes all other disciplines. It’s the basis upon which all the other disciplines are built. As we try to recapture and rebuild lost knowledge, It will be essential to have a strong mathematic foundatinon. Throughout history, it has been essential — in navigation, engineering, architecture and city planning, just for starters.
  • Biology (James Schneider): Biology helps us understand ecosystems and build a sustainable future. We need it for medicine and agriculture — the two basic needs of a begining society. If you master those, you’ll have time to develop the “luxury” disciplines. You need to eat. You need biology NOW to survive. And remember: With biology, you can make beer. (Big applause.)
  • Psychology (Barb Curchack): A psychologist can help survivors cope after a disaster, and regain the wits they need to rebuild society. You’ve made it to the raft, but maybe you’ve sustained a brain injury or lost oxygen. You need someone like me to understand what’s going on with your brain. And when you need to repopulate the world, wouldn’t you want to know who the best person would be for you to mate with? (That drew a big whoop.) We can help with that.
  • English (Dave Page): You’re building a new society. You need to rebuild your culture. It’s a new beginning, and you’ll have nothing to start with. The beginning of culture has always been about words — about the great works of literature.
  • Criminal justice / law enforcement (Michael Server): I spend 90 percent of my time policing 10 percent of the population. When we’re on that island, that 10 percent will be unleashed. Without social order and rules and consequences for bad behavior, you can’t have a society.
  • Jason Kaufman (devil’s advocate): Don’t take any of them. They’ve been telling you garbage. All those disciplines have failed us. Biology had brought us freaks of nature. Criminal justice has brought us the repressive police state. Math? Right, we all just love math. It would make such a thrilling society. And English for survival — seriously?

Biology won out in the end, and Schneider won the coveted trophy: The Lifeboat Oar. 

Law enforcement was the runner-up, followed by the Devil’s Advocate, math, English and psychology.

Schneider knows the real reason he won. He knows college students. He told me:

“The food argument is a strong one, but … they are looking for beer.”