The Life Raft Debate
Every year (since 1998), students and faculty at the University of Montevallo (my Alma mater) come together to prove the value of a Liberal Arts education in America. In the Life Raft Debate, the scenario is simple:
There has been a nuclear war and the survivors (the 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 gets to give an introductory account of his or her discipline, then give a brief rebuttal to the others, and, finally, the audience will be allowed to ask questions and vote. Each professor has to argue that his or her discipline is the one indispensable area of study that the new civilization will need to flourish. At the end of the debating, the audience votes and the lucky winner climbs aboard, waving goodbye to the others.
The true purpose behind the debate is to highlight the importance of a liberal arts education. Each discipline brings something to the table, to the world, to the lives of students. To the Raft, as it were. We, in reality, cannot survive without any discipline. They are all equally important.
A broad undergraduate education is valuable for many reasons. Understanding the basics of multiple disciplines forced me to think outside the box, to ask questions, to learn how to do research and to learn how to think analytically. I earned a Bachelor of Science with a double major in Psychology and Sociology at the University of Montevallo in 2004 (wow, I’m getting old). Despite have a concentration in two disciplines, I still took courses in Math, the Hard Sciences, Engineering, Law, Political Science, History, Foreign Language, Sociology, Psychology, Economics, the Arts, Religion, Philosophy and more. I learned how to love to learn. I learned how to learn. A Liberal Arts education prepared for the real world and for a graduate level education. And I will always be a proponent of liberal arts education at the undergraduate level.
This weekend, NPR’s This American Life podcast featured the outcome of the 2007 Life Rafe Debate. Listen to the “Tough Guys” segment on NPR’s This American Life in which the Life Raft Debate is mentioned. (It begins at 41:00.)
In the segment, Dr. Jon Smith said:
There is a degree to which we sortof expect public discourse is going to be horrifically debased. That we are going to have these god awful debates and there is nothing else except crappy emotional appeals that may or may not actually have an impact upon real issues.
That quote reminded me of an old episode of Real Time with Bill Maher in which Richard Dreyfuss discussed the importance of teaching Civics in school.
Few undergraduate programs will ever include even a glimmer of Civics in their curricula. It is our responsibility as citizens of the world to be active in that world. To make a difference. To ask questions. To educate ourselves and not allow the status quo to dictate what we think, feel and do in our lives.
A Liberal Arts education challenged me to be a better human being, student and world citizen. I will be forever grateful for such a gift.