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What disciplines are worth saving? College students answer

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Life raft debate
A biologist, philosopher, anthropologist, music instructor and a paramedic instructor -- who gets the last available spot in a life raft to rebuild society. For the last three years, Inver Hills Community College has debated the value of academic disciplines most important to society.
MPR photo/Alex Friedrich

Imagine much of the earth has suffered a nuclear war. Survivors must sail away in a life raft to rebuild society. Only one seat remains. On the shore is a handful of college instructors: a biologist, philosopher, anthropologist, music instructor and a paramedic instructor. Each instructor argues why they deserve that last seat and what their field would contribute to the new civilization.

It's called the "life raft debate" and at least for one afternoon, it's a matter of life and death at Inver Hills Community College. For the last three years, the college has staged a debate about which academic disciplines are most important to society. The judges are the students in the audience.

On Tuesday afternoon before a packed audience of a few hundred, biologist James Schneider starts the debate. He argues that his discipline helps people produce food, medicine and clean water. Biology, he said, ensures survival so that learning and culture can begin again.

  "We need to survive long enough for these disciplines to come about on their own," Schneider said. "And they will if you bring me on that life raft with you, we can survive long enough. Philosophy will emerge. Music will emerge."

Life raft debate
For the last three years, Inver Hills Community College has debated the value of academic disciplines most important to society. A biologist, philosopher, anthropologist, music instructor and a paramedic instructor debate over the last available spot in a life raft to rebuild society. On the right, the Grim Reaper is tasked with ensuring speakers stay within their allotted time.
MPR photo/Alex Friedrich

Dressed as Indiana Jones, anthropologist Jeremy Nienow took the podium to the sound of the movie sound track. Nienow counters that anthropology is also practical — he can make stone tools and knows basic agriculture. With anthropology, he said, survivors can rebuild society with new norms of behavior as it applies to sex and recreational drugs.

"Are you upset with the current illegal status of certain recreational drugs?" Nienow said. "Then, my fellow survivors, bring anthropology along, and we will redefine what it means to be civilized."

Playing a piano, Stan Rothrock argued for art's place in the raft. To cope with life, survivors will need music, he said. 

"I exist to help you live — to help you love," Rothrock said.

But emergency medicine beats all others, said paramedic Daryl Doering. Paramedics can save lives in the new world. They also incorporate other disciplines daily, either in medicine or working with patients.

Anthropologist Jeremy Nienow
Dressed as Indiana Jones, Jeremy Nienow argued that anthropology has practical use, such as with making stone tools and knowledge of basic agriculture. With anthropology, he said, survivors can rebuild society with new norms of behavior as it applies to sex and recreational drugs.
MPR photo/Alex Friedrich

"It's more than just fact and theory. It's reality. EMS is your life raft," Doering said.

In a twist, philosopher Shane Stroup does not argue for a place on the raft. Instead, he said survivors will have to consider how to build society.

"If you do not wish to repeat the failings of your ancestry and destroy the planet once again, you will need to rethink education as well," Stroup said.

The debate also features a devil's advocate to argue that none of the survivors should be rescued. That role went to Shiloh Gideon-Sjostrom who said they are all worthless.

Gideon-Sjostrom did not oppose education, but said instructors aren't necessary to make music or philosophize. Neither are biologists, she said. People identify corn when they see it, for example. Paramedics aren't worth much without their equipment. And the lessons of anthropology didn't help civilization avoid nuclear war, and therefore useless.

 "Just say no." Gideon-Sjostrom said. "No to biology. No to EMS. No to philosophy. No to music. And no to anthropology.

"Because our world will survive without them."

It all seems like frivolous fun.

But Inver Hills Community College President Tim Wynes said the discussion reflects a larger debate of what kind of learning is more valuable to society: a liberal arts education or one oriented toward careers, like medical services.  

"The bottom line is that what you get out of a college education is the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, different education levels and different disciplines," Wynes said. "And this debate reflects that all those things come together in a college education and help you become a better citizen for society."

In the end, anthropologist Nienow won the last seat in the life raft. His drug-legalization argument had echoes of last year's debate. That's when students voted for the biology advocate who promised that his skills would enable him to produce what students value most in life: beer.