Dr. Alex Beringer from English!
Alex Beringer rode a comics-fueled argument that stories and narratives connect us in ways essential to survival to victory in the 2018 Life Raft Debate. As the other panelists wished him well and nervously treaded water, Alex climbed aboard the raft, oar in hand, and set off to fight the isolation and insularity that presumably led us to our previous disastrous scenario. Now all ha has to do is come back next year and defend his title.
With roughly 375 people in attendance, over 290 votes were cast in Palmer auditorium withe several more cast via twitter from our far-flung streaming audience of more than 180 unique viewers. Here’s how the debate developed.
Scott Varagona was the Emcee, and he began the night on a somewhat grim and confessional note. He pointed out that in his three (!) victories (one representing Mathematics, two as Devil’s Advocate), he had become a cold-blooded killer, dispatching 14 people to watery graves. Worse still, he had made the audience killers as well. He concluded that he was too good at killing to be allowed to continue and that he, and death, should have a holiday, thereby eliminating himself from eligibility. He then assumed the duties of introducing and ribbing this year’s contestants.
First up was former champion (2008) Scott Turner from Political Science. After showing some Kavanaugh-esque tendencies, he went about the task of detailing the skills Political Science brings to the raft. By knowing the theoretical approaches proposed in the past by the likes of Rousseau and Hobbes and their respective limitations, Scott framed the question faced by the raft-riders as the essentially political question, “Who gets what? When? And How? After more discussion, Scott made a play for leadership with power limited by the will of the people and ended his pitch.
Next up Emily Gill, a veteran of the 2011 Debate, defended the art Wardrobe creation and maintenance from Theater. Emily, wearing her wardrobe utility-belt, demonstrated that she, as a wardrobe professional, was ready to face any situation. She stands ready to fix us up and send us out to face the world. She’s also there to fix us up when the world chews us up and spits us back out. Armed with thread, tape, glue, febreze and safety pins (among other things), Emily offers the raft denizens safety and service. The wardrobe accepts us and without judging prepares us to be our best at every opportunity, regardless of our differing standards of personal hygiene.
Emily was followed by literal first-timer Courtney Bentley, representing Teaching and Curriculum. Courtney began by pointing out what everyone knows—that public education is vital to society and is under siege all the time. As such, public education, so vital in the new world, needs a champion. Courtney nominated herself as such a champion, since she represents two disciplines: Curriculum and Teaching. Curriculum constitutes the “what” or content of education and Teaching deals with the process and practice of conveying the content that curriculum gives us. Courtney gave an impassioned defense of this breakdown and methodology but, being a poor student, I wasn’t listening and can’t say much more here. She finished her advocacy of Curriculum and Teaching by describing teachers as the first responders of society, taking the youth as they find them and doing whatever it takes (including, it seems, tying the wet shoelaces of children emerging from the bathroom!) to get fit for society. Teachers, it seems, are the real Superheroes of society and need to be on the life raft.
After that, Laura McMillian rose to the defense of Art. Laura said that while the charge of the panelists was to help rebuild civilization, she, as an artist, had no real interest in being “civilized.” But, she pointed out, she was a sharp dresser. Laura argued that Art and its history were intrinsic to our way of life. She asked us to imagine how impoverished the world would be if we’d never had the great artists such as Da Vinci; how we would view our current situation if we had never had the art and artists that opposed Hitler and spoke out about the HIV crisis when the US government would not. In short, the function of art is to transform and to steer us to be our better selves, often in spite of society’s pull. On a more practical note, artists have an innate understanding of 3-dimensional perspective and design and so will be helpful, if not vital, to rebuilding our material infrastructure. Finally, being an artist demonstrates faith in survival against seemingly impossible odds, given the plight of the typical starving artist. Such faith will be essential in the coming days.
Finally, Alex Beringer spoke on behalf of English. Alex argued that the biggest threat to humanity, as depicted often in literature, is not any external force, but humanity itself. Even when citing a graphic novel, a form Alex uses to explore literature, the characters in The Walking Dead clash more about the inconveniences and hardships facing them interpersonally than they do about the ravening hordes of hungry, undead people. The solution to this threat is to be able to have empathy for each other—to see past our differences and to grasp the things we share. He cited Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a text that changed the world by creating such empathy in its readers that slavery was no longer tolerable to them in the “real” world. Armed with such empathy, which comics are especially good at providing, we can face and survive the challenges of the new world. As Alex said in his final statement, “I will remind you that you are not alone.”
In the rebuttal part of the debate, the discussion was lively and pointed. Scott pointed out that his colleagues could not have used their fancy Power Point presentations on the Life Raft, claimed that philosophy was just a subset of political science, and that over 20 years ago, he had suggested that we change the rules to the debate to let everyone live. He encouraged revolution, albeit at the ballot box via voting rather than by morediregct means. Emily spoke of the choice facing the raft-dwellers as opposed to the desperation of the panelists. She then produced a large pair of scissors from her utility belt and pantomimed the ways in which they could be used to create wardrobe or to destroy things, presumably things such as rafts. Courtney said that real teachers abhorred standardized tests since it was wrong to make a critical decision about a human being based ob a single measure. Therefore, such testing would be left behind in the rubble of there old world. Laura suggested that it was unlikely we were on the only raft. If we encounter other rafts, she said, we may not share a language with them. In such a case, artists can mediate communication—just look at an Ikea assemble manual: rather than instructions translated into many languages, the manuals employ only visual images. Alex claimed that the Life Raft was a metaphor, and as such, was in his Rea of expertise as a professor of literature. The real question of the Life Raft is “What is it that will sustain you for the rest of your life?” Alex claimed it was an understanding of literature and access to it s benefits that would allow us to sustain ourselves.
Dr. Varagona had a field day with barbs too numerous to recount here, but you owe it to yourself to watch the video of the debate on the UM YouTube channel.
In the end, you know what happened. The audience voted and Alex won.
See you in 2019 at the 22nd Annual Life Raft Debate!
This may not be my most complete re-hash in LRD history, but it was hard to take notes and participate from the stage. It is never possible to capture the magic that is the Life Raft Debate in a few mere words, so please watch the video of the whole shebang on YouTube here.
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Jay Cofield and the crew providing the video coverage
If you missed the debate this year, watch it here.
This American Life will air a segment on UM’s Life Raft Debate during their episode “Save the Day,” which premiers this week. The episode will focus on the 2007 debate, during which Jon Smith scored the first-ever victory for the Devil’s Advocate.
Life Raft Debate Tidbits:
Of the participants in the 16 previous debates,
This work by Michael F. Patton, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.