The Life Raft Debate and the importance of a Liberal Arts education

{Life Raft Debate}

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.

Liberal Arts

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.

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7 thoughts on “The Life Raft Debate and the importance of a Liberal Arts education

  1. This is the first I’ve heard of the “Life Raft” debate, and I was intrigued by your post. I have a few thoughts, though.

    Although I understand the hypothetical nature of the “life raft” situation, obviously if there was only one spot left and only one person that could be saved, the selection process would heavily depend on the time period following the disaster. For example, if it were within a year or so of the disaster, obviously basic needs would be accounted for first. As a psychology major (and noticing that you were one too), you must have been familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.. my point being that the most fundamental needs should be taken care of first (i.e. food, water, shelter, etc). Not only would the priority of needs be emphasized in this situation, but also their importance to the act of living in the long term be underscored too. That is, we need a doctor so that we don’t die prematurely, but we don’t need a medieval english literature professor to “biologically” live. We may need a farmer who is adroit in multiple agricultural and irrigation practices (for food), but we may not need a theoretical cosmologist who used to study the origins of the Big Bang at Fermilab.

    What I’m getting at here is that education itself has advanced to the point where we know so much about the world and its intricacies, that subfields of subfields of academic disciplines have been created that are progressing evermore into the realm of the esoteric. This, I believe, is also the path of the liberal arts education.

    Now, please understand that I as well attended a small liberal arts college, and like you, I am grateful for going there. I feel that it has helped my thinking, writing, and general outlook on the world. However, when I chose to go to a liberal arts college, I knew that I was not going to learn practical, pragmatic skills. I, like you, chose to go there to learn how to learn. This is an important skill, no doubt, but it is nonetheless a skill that would most certainly arise later as a civilization advances. I imagine it would be increasingly more difficult, however, to begin a world anew lacking the surgical techniques and agricultural practices which took us thousands of years to refine.

    In truth, I feel that certain disciplines and fields of study should be ranked higher than others according to their overall contributions to society. Now, I wrote the word “contributions,” making sure not to mistake it with the word, “value.” Many of the pragmatic disciplines, like engineering or medicine, tell us how to live (in the most optimal way possible), but they do not tell us WHY we live. This “why,” is perhaps the crux of many civilians’ lives today and is most likely best answered with religion, philosophy, beauty, and truth. Getting into if we need the “why” to live, is a whole other argument altogether, but perhaps (in my opinion) is a more contemporary view of existence; that is, I can’t imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors contemplating this “meta-thinking” very much.

    Your thoughts?

  2. In listening to him equate lack of critical thinking with the fall of democracy and essentially our freedoms, I am reminded of one of my fave movies, the Neverending Story, in which “the Nothing” destroys Fantasia because kids stopped reading and using their imaginations.

    1. Yes! So true. It also reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth when he was almost sucked into the Doldrums for not thinking and being lazy. He finally had to think his way out of it to avoid the Lethargians. :)

  3. Without my sociology degree & philosophy minor, I would have never survived as a teacher, a director nor even be as in touch w/ social media.

    1. I wish everyone had to take few basic courses in Sociology. Especially Social Stratification to completely rid ourselves of stereotypes about poverty. Sigh…

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