The Life Raft Debate is an annual event at the University of Montevallo. Sponsored by the Philosophy Club, the Debate has occurred each Fall semester since 1998, making it the longest continually-held debate of its type. The debate occurs on the second Thursday in October during the university’s Founders’ Day commemoration.
In the Life Raft Debate, we imagine that 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 win the coveted Oar and get on the raft, and only one seat is left. 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 claims the Oar and climbs aboard, waving goodbye to the others. 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 votes all but one panelist off. Often, a seventh participant, the Devil’s Advocate, appears and tries to convince the audience that the entire panel is unworthy and that all should be left behind to drown. In the following year, the defending champion faces five new challengers in a new debate. To date, no one has successfully defended the Oar.
The first event was held in 1998 before an audience of roughly 200 people. Dr. Michael Sterner of the Mathematics Department carried the day with an impassioned defense of his discipline, touting both its usefulness and beauty and promising that, if he were to be saved, there would be “no more word problems ever.” In the subsequent years the debate’s popularity grew to attract more than 800 audience members per year. The following years saw victories by Dr. Mike Hardig (Biology), Dr. Pennie Ticen (English), Professor Luke Hardt (Theater), Dr. Michael Patton (Philosophy), Dr. Steve Parker (Sociology), Dr. Wilson Fallin (History), Mr. Zack Foster (Culinary Arts), Dr. Philip C. Williams (University Presidency), the Devil’s Advocate (Dr. Jon Smith, English), Dr. Scott Turner (Political Science), Dr. Benton Tyler (Mathematics), Dr. Stephanie Batkie (Medieval Literature) and Dr. Kevin Hope (Physics).
On March 12th, 2010, the NPR show This American Life ran a story on the Life Raft Debate entitled “I’d Like to Spank the Academy” (episode 402, Save the Day). The story followed the events of the 2007 Life Raft Debate in which Devil’s Advocate Dr. Jon Smith (English) successfully argued that all the panelists should be drowned because they were merely trying to be funny, not to educate or to defend the importance of their respective disciplines. Following the broadcast, several colleges and universities in the US and abroad began hosting Life Raft Debates of their own, most after consulting the UM Philosophy Club for advice.
The Next Debate
The 15th Annual Life Raft Debate will occur on October 13th, 2016 at 7:00 pm in Palmer Auditorium on the campus of the University of Montevallo. For more information, visit the Life Raft Debate home page.