Feb. 23, 2011

In a struggle for a 'spot on a life raft,' will philosophy, English, theater or Classics win?

Stranded on an island, five professors vie for the one remaining spot on a life raft packed with undergraduates. In this post-apocalyptic world, who will the students choose to save?

This was not a reality TV show or a science fiction movie, but the scene in Goldwin Smith's Lewis Auditorium Feb. 22. The occasion: the first annual "Life Raft Debate," modeled on a similar event held by the University of Montevallo in Alabama and popularized by the radio program "This American Life." Four professors of humanities and one physics professor, the "devil's advocate," were each given 10 minutes to persuade the audience or "survivors" why their discipline should be saved.

"Who do you need in order to ensure that you will survive in these most uncertain times?" asked Ariana Marmora '11, president of Logos, the undergraduate journal of philosophy that organized the event.

Classics lecturer Antonia Ruppel highlighted the contributions of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, from tragedies and love poetry to letters that she described as "2,000-year-old political blogs." By reading Greek and Latin texts, "we get a whole lot of perspective on where we come from," learning "what is common to the shared human experience," she said. Also, "classicists know a fair share about rafts," Ruppell added, since Homer's hero Odysseus "spent some time on a raft."

Associate professor of philosophy Karen Bennett said that the philosopher should be taken aboard the raft because "we ask and answer really special kinds of questions, and some of those questions" -- Which is the best form of government? Should we take care of others? -- "are directly relevant to our survival and prosperity." Humans are "reflective creatures by nature," she added, and we also need philosophers to pose questions like "What is beauty? What's causation? Do we have free will?"

"Artists often have trouble articulating to society their value," said Melanie Dreyer-Lude, assistant professor of theatre, film and dance. When she took students and faculty to teach theater games in Uganda, she "felt a little silly." But as the Ugandans coached and acted together, "they became the authors of their life stories," she said. "We couldn't bring fresh water or a new AIDS vaccine, but we could bring the knowledge that Ugandans could solve many of their own problems if they could only learn to believe in their own ability."

"The English department is obviously everything," said Masha Raskolnikov, associate professor of English, noting that she teaches about such philosophers as Plato and Descartes and that other English faculty study French literature, art history and classics. While disciplines like philosophy deal with the abstract, Raskolnikov said, English interprets concrete stories, bridging cultures and offering "help understanding across the distance that separates my flesh and yours."

Playing devil's advocate, André LeClair, professor of physics, took a practical approach. "You don't need bedtime stories, love advice, pretty pictures and dancing lessons, you need to survive," he said. LeClair noted that physics underlies all the other sciences, giving the survivors the ability to create electricity, use fire, navigate and even distill alcohol.

The audience's verdict: LeClair and Bennett tied for the remaining spot on the raft, receiving a ceremonial paddle. But by the end of the debate, all the professors had joined to defend the humanities.

Raskolnikov noted the common ground between their disciplines: "Every one of my colleagues has spoken about the importance of the imagination, the importance of creativity and the importance of joy." Bennett agreed that "letting us all on" would be best. Appealing to the audience, Raskolnikov added: "We all should go on the boat. You are all here because you're curious yourselves, because you want to learn."

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.