Armstrong survives Raft Debate| October 1, 2009
It may have been the most competitive Raft Debate since they started pumping air into the little orange, yellow and black craft.
A four-student jury weighed audience applause and concluded Wednesday night that Physics Professor David Armstrong defeated Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Giulia Pacini, Economics Professor David Feldman and Assistant Professor of Education Jeremy Stoddard.
An energized, near-capacity crowd piled into the Sadler Center and closed the lids of their laptops and Daily Grind chai latte’s long enough to participate in a William & Mary tradition dating back to the mid-1900s, presided over this year by Laurie Sanderson, dean of graduate studies and research. The annual event is sponsored by the Office of Graduate Studies and Research, the Graduate Center, and the Arts & Sciences Graduate Student Association.
The dilemma: Three professors (a scientist, a social scientist, and a humanist) are stranded on a desert island. The life raft that washed up with them seats one. The first three debate why their discipline is so vital to society that they should be handed the oars. The fourth, a devil’s advocate, joins in to argue against all of them. The orator who draws the most audience applause over a 20-second period is declared the winner.
The night was filled with a touch of slapstick, clever barbs and friendly insults, with occasional periods of sober thought. To some, the vote appeared too close to call. Pacini probably could have legitimately asked for a do-over, another round of applause that would more clearly define the winner.
Pacini, aware of the bountiful dessert table at the post-debate reception, and true to her affinity for topics such as the French Revolution, demurred, in effect invoking Marie Antoinette’s classic “Let them eat cake.”
Feldman, cocky enough to actually sit in the raft moments before the debate began, operated at a distinct disadvantage. State budget cuts, 401K disasters, bank bailouts and Bernie Madoff presented him with more baggage than his slender frame could bear.
“I feel like the guy in the middle of a 15-foot hole, looking up,” he said, “Laurie appears at the lip of the hole, shouting, ‘Would you like some help?’ Then she offers me a shovel.”
Feldman argued valiantly for the social sciences, but his main point seemed to be “we’re not the only ones who screw up.”
Although sympathetic - “It’s a very nice year to debate an economist,” she acknowledged - Pacini accused Feldman of “fishing for arguments,” and handed him a pole with a boot dangling from the hook, symbolic in so many ways.
Stoddard drew slightly more enthusiastic applause. Dressed in a coal-black suit that screamed “The Devil’s Advocate Wore Hager” (he swore that it was a deliberate slap at bankers everywhere), Stoddard’s clever use of poster-board insults provided momentary comic relief. He likewise derided the selfish nature of the three disciplines on stage.
“If we’re talking about the future of humanity, which discipline would you want to survive?” he asked. “Or is it just so scary that maybe we need to leave the raft empty. Push it afloat and hope it arrives at another island. Perhaps there’s another stranded person that comes from a field that appreciates inter-disciplinary work, is more pragmatic and, frankly, works every day for the goodness of all mankind.
“For while all of the disciplines are equally worthwhile and admirable, in the words of gunnery sergeant Hartman from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal jacket’: “You’re also all equally worthless.”
Kubrick, apparently, was not big with this crowd.
That left Armstrong, dressed as though he’d rushed over from a meeting of the Jimmy Buffet Society (flip-flops, David, not Nikes). And it left Pacini fashionably attired, wearing a blue-and-white blouse, blue slacks and black sandals polished to military-school perfection.
Armstrong opened strongly by paying homage to that classic American television series “Gilligan’s Island.” The would-be jazz guitarist even sang the first verse. Far more impressively, he hypothesized that seven castaways on a desert island was the perfect microcosm for the academic world, each representing a unique discipline.
The Skipper, he claimed, loud, opinionated and occasionally violent: “Government Department.” Armstrong continued through the cast until he came to the person he argued kept them all alive, identified the edible food, predicted tropical storms, concocted antidotes to deadly poisons.
“The professor, the scientist, the nerdy natural scientist,” he explained. “Gilligan’s Island tells us clearly the scientist is the most useful and valuable control for the survival of the species.”
Pacini countered by commending science for sending a man to the moon 40 years ago. However “it seems the sciences are so wrapped up in their hydraulic formulas that they forget that different cultures have different values – and different systems of measurement.
“They built a probe to Mars, one that ended up in flames because the scientists forgot to translate the English imperial system of measurement into the metric.
“And what did the economists do when that happened? They complained that $125 million had just gone down the drain.”
Armstrong fought back, arguing that the unwavering rigidity of science made it the discipline most worthy of survival.
“Science confronts the reality of man and the universe around him with experiments and observation as the ultimate arbiter of that reality,” he said. “Reality is not swayed by eloquence or rhetoric or force of personality. Humanity and social sciences are ultimately concerned with looking inward at humanity . . . The natural sciences are looking outward, groping toward the ultimate truth, truth that will exist after humanity has evolved into something different, or disappeared entirely.”
But Pacini wasn’t done punching.
“The arts allow us to understand our problems,” she claimed, “We use art to imagine a better world, one that brings joy to our life. . . . Imagine a world without spirituals, without gospel music. Can you imagine the world without Bob Marley? Or Bob Dylan? No Maya Angelou? No Toni Morrison? No Simpsons?
“As John Kennedy once said, ‘We will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battles or politics, but for our contributions to the human spirit.’ And it’s that contribution to the human spirit that brings meaning to our lives.”
The audience didn’t buy it; at least not to the degree they concurred with Armstrong’s rhetoric. Armstrong's cold science had warmed their hearts.