Staying afloat

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September 26, 2011

9:03 PM

Peals of laughter reverberated through the walls of the Commonwealth Auditorium of the Sadler Center on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. beckoning passersby to come take a look at the ruckus within. It isn’t often students get to see their professors donning togas and fake beards.

Four faculty members from varied disciplines gathered to participate in the annual Raft Debate, in which they argued about who ought to be saved after an imaginary shipwreck left them stranded on an island with only one raft. Vassiliki Panoussi represented the humanities, Andrew Fisher spoke for the social sciences, Larry Leemis represented the natural and computational sciences, and Pamela Eddy played devil’s advocate.

Each of the four faculty members had seven minutes to make his or her initial argument about which discipline should be saved. Then, each of the faculty members had the opportunity to make a three minute rebuttal before the students voted for their favorite speaker.

First up was Panoussi, an associate professor of classical studies at the College, defending the humanities. She wore a toga and had stuffed animals crammed under her arms as she approached the podium. She asserted that the humanities represented the arts, which made the world meaningful.

“Would you want an iPod if there was no music in it?” Panoussi asked the crowd. “The humanities make everything fun! We put the fun in technology!”

She also mentioned the importance of the legacy of the Greeks and Romans in developing culture and understanding humanity.

“We’ve heard how much social sciences have increased our understanding of humans,” Panoussi said. “But I also want to point out that we really didn’t need Freud because we had Oedipus!”

Fisher, an associate professor of history, then approached the podium in a ripped sport coat and an enormous fake beard. He acknowledged the beauty of the arts and the accomplishments of the hard sciences but asserted that the social sciences were a middle-ground between the two.

“We can be rigorous … like a hard science, with the elegant qualities of the humanities,” Fisher said.

He went on to indict the hard sciences for being unreceptive to disciplines that lack their specific methodology and for being unsympathetic to what is good for humanity.

“They can’t trust things that can’t be replicated in a lab,” Fisher said. “But the real world is more like Charlie Sheen … messy and unpredictable and chaotic! And they do things just because they can without thinking of whether they should. Like making atomic bombs … or a zombie apocalypse. Half of the scientists spend all their time studying and trying to fix the problems created by the other half.”

Larry Leemis of the mathematics department came next to argue for the importance of the natural and computational sciences.

“All of these disciplines are important,” Leemis said. “[But] science and technology, in the last 100 to 200 years, has so out-performed these other disciplines.”

He went on to list specific advantages of the hard sciences for humanity, including better public health and mechanization practices that make our lives easier.

“This is about survival,” Leemis said. “What do you need? Food, water, medical attention, an astronomer to navigate stars — those are the things you need going on a raft. If you are trying to survive, you want science and technology.”

Eddy, an associate professor from the education program, spoke critically of all the other disciplines, claiming that none of them should be saved because they are all flawed.

After each of the faculty members spoke, the students voted by applauding for the discipline they believed should be saved. The social sciences won the popular vote of the students, and Panoussi and Leemis patted Fisher on the back. They all smiled and laughed, energized by the debate.

A reception in Tidewater A followed the debate, where students could mingle with the faculty members and further discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each of the three major disciplines. People laughed and quoted their favorite lines of the evening. Friends walked home from the quirky Tribe tradition, playfully arguing over whose major was most worth saving and proud to represent each of their respective disciplines.

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