Battle of the Disciplines

By Jan Senn with Mallory Guinee '14

Premise: A few surviving humans are leaving postapocalyptic Earth on a spaceship.

Clincher: There is only room for one academic discipline on the flight.

Debate: Who gets the last seat on the fleeing spaceship?

Winner: You choose!

It’s April 10, 2013. A dark day for humanity.

Snow falls steadily outdoors as five professors gather in Carleton’s Boliou Hall to make a desperate plea for the survival of their respective disciplines: chemistry, English, computer science, economics, and religion. As students and colleagues listen, the professors debate their field’s necessity for the remaining humans who must repopulate another planet after the apocalypse.

Sponsored by the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching (LTC), the event, deemed Academia’s Judgment Day, coincides with the deadline for Carleton sophomores to declare a major. “We thought it would be a less serious way to talk about an important decision, as well as to discuss the value of a liberal arts education,” says Rachel White ’13, one of the LTC student fellows who organized the event. “We invited professors we thought would have fun with this.” As for the other disciplines, “we’ll just say that unfortunately they’ve already been annihilated,” says LTC student fellow Rachel Levit Ades ’13. “As the world dissolves in chaos, one question remains: What are we going to study?”

Each professor has five minutes to make an opening remark, followed by a three-minute rebuttal, a Q & A session, and a closing statement. Students cheer on their favorite professors and eventually select a “winner”—but not before some serious sass is dished up. 

Carleton-JudgementChemistry-091613.jpgTrish Ferrett
Professor of Chemistry

Opening Statement: As to the nature of the apocalypse, we cannot adapt to this kind of climate change. It has resulted in poverty, war, conflict, refugee crises, blackouts, energy and fuel rationing, water shortages, severe budget cuts, an unstable and contaminated food supply—and decimated our infrastructures and the Internet. Our coasts are uninhabitable and with mass migrations, infectious diseases have popped up in new places. The entire global ecosystem has crashed.

So what can chemists do? We design molecules. We understand how structure and properties at the molecular level relate to macroscopic properties and applications to global-wide problems. We also love to solve problems, especially when they’re really hard! Most problems require chemistry as one contributing perspective, and chemists are trained to work in interdisciplinary teams. 

We may have to take a spaceship somewhere else, but if I know the human race, when we get there we’re going to create the same problems all over again. Here are four major areas we’ll need to address:

  1. Energy. We have invented and are quickly improving biochemical systems that actually mimic biology. With the impending energy crisis, we will have to work with biologists, engineers, physicists, material scientists, politicians, governments, and environmental scientists.
  2. Public health. Drug-resistant diseases and organisms will need new vaccines. The apocalypse requires an entirely new approach to public health, and we’re excited to work with others involved in problem solving.
  3. Food supply. Pesticides and herbicides designed by our ancestors have done untold damage. Environmental chemists, food chemists, and industrial chemists have been working on novel solutions to manage pests and weeds. They will be working with many others to stabilize the food supply once they’ve dealt with the pollution crisis.
  4. Water supply. We’re already ramped up to deal with oil and chemical spills, chemical build-up, and sediments left from centuries of human-made pollutants. Experts in chemical safety and analysis of chemicals in the global ecosystem have identified the highest priorities and are gathering interdisciplinary teams. 

Best Rebuttal: (To Tim Raylor) Tim, I say ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’!

Closing Remark: In the physical world in which we will have to live together—chemists are the only ones who know how to think across the divide from the small to the big, from the molecule all the way up to the human being and the ecosystem.


Carleton-JudgementReligion-091613.jpgRoger Jackson
John W. Nason Professor of Asian Studies and Religion

Opening Statement: In the publicity for this event, the two major images that have been invoked are that of Judgment Day and eternity. In that sense, my discipline is the frame in which this whole debate is being conducted. We own the discourse.

Religion studies is both the deepest and the broadest discipline available to us in a postapocalyptic world. I will start with a definition by noted Jewish theologian Jon Stewart: “Religion: It’s a powerful healing force in a world torn apart by religion.”

Religion is a double-edged sword and, because of that, some people think humanity is better off without it. Since I am concerned with the value of religion studies rather than of religion itself, I will not argue that point here. I will argue that religion is inescapable and important and must be understood in the new world as much as in the old.

With the rise of science, religion was supposed to disappear and yet it did not. Religion is one of a handful of cultural systems that go back to the beginnings of our species. Most human moral systems arose first in a religious context, as did most philosophy, literature, and art. Even the modern social sciences, though they claim to transcend religion, are rooted in it historically.

Religion has not disappeared and will not disappear because we are transient, limited, anxious creatures. We want to understand and instinctively seek to transcend our limitations. In the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight.” At such existential points, it is above all religion—and its array of stories, doctrines, symbols, songs, rituals, feasts, ethical and social teachings, and psychological insights—that provides the cognitive and affective means for humans to construct or perhaps discover meaning where there seems to be none.

The theologian Paul Tillich talked about religion as involving “ultimate concern”—a preoccupation with that which is believed to be most real, true, meaningful, abiding, profoundly motivating. You can call this God, Tao, Allah, or the gods, but it’s deeper than any single conception and indeed it cannot be captured by any single symbol.

Whether there really is some thing or things that correspond to any of these notions is a moot point. The key is people have thought, spoken, and acted as if there were. What religious people have thought, said, and done has shaped human history and will continue to do so. You can’t understand the deepest wellsprings of human thought, feeling, and action without understanding religion.

Best Rebuttal: If this apocalypse is in the distant future, it’s not entirely unimaginable that religious adepts may have developed techniques to transcend the physical realm. We’ve been there since before there was any of this and we’ll be there long after all of this has been shown to be so much physical fluff.

Closing Remark: Nobody goes as deep as we do. Nobody goes as wide.


Carleton-JudgementEconomics-091613.jpgMartha Paas
Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics

Opening Statement: Economists have about as much social standing these days as heroin addicts. We’re just misunderstood. The public impression of economics comes from the kind of macrodebate covered in news programs by apes. Most of the predictions they give about inflation and the dollar and the deficit and whether financial markets will go up or down are poor quality and spuriously precise. It’s not possible to forecast these things, and shame on those news organizations for pretending it is.

Being an economist is more than being a member of the profession, it is fundamental to who you are. The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions that are immediately applicable to policy. It’s a method, rather than a doctrine. An apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking that helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions and must be learned. Hence, I need to be on that spaceship!

Economics has its roots in philosophy. Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy when he became interested in economics. The full title of his famous book is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. From the beginning, economists have sought to understand what is the wealth of nations. How does it happen? In a world after Armageddon, I would want poetry, oboe concertos, caramel sea-salt ice cream, pussycats, and all the things that make life worth living. But first, we have to eat. We have to organize resources.

Provisioning in the face of scarce resources is the most fundamental need of mankind. Economics gives us the power to deal with whatever parameters there are, in the best possible light. No other discipline even comes close to that. Economists reason by analogy and it may be useful to think of economics as a key, the means by which you open the door to all of the possibilities.

Best Rebuttal: I don’t have much patience with wishfulness, with the promises of what some disciplines might be able to do someday. They’re going to be faced with choices and choices have to be decided upon. Economists know how to do that.

Closing Remark: I’d like to end with a toast that John Maynard Keynes gave at the Royal Economic Society in 1945: “To economics and economists, who are the trustees not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization.”


Carleton-JudgementEnglish-091613.jpgTim Raylor
Professor of English

Opening Statement: Compared to the amazing achievements in the world of chemistry that Trish mentioned, English seems a rather wooly subject. For example, in the early modern period of Europe that I study, the chemists were the first to come up with a cure for the then-new disease of syphilis: ingest large amounts of mercury. As a result, it’s safe to say that during the early modern period, few syphilis sufferers died of that disease.

Moving now to economics, another science that has allowed us to analyze events and offer reliable predictions, we’re all grateful to economists for helping us avoid what could have been disastrous economic crashes in 1929 and in 2008.

As to religion, theology faculties have long had a huge impact on the world. In the early 17th century, when faced with the potential for enormous social and intellectual disruption caused by Galileo’s investigations into cosmology, Italian theologians were instrumental in ensuring that Galileo’s books were kept out of circulation. They also succeeded in getting him to retract his ridiculous view that Earth rotates around the sun.

English majors just can’t compete with that kind of impact. Scientific disciplines have clear demarcations and precisely calibrated goals. English isn’t like that.

The question before us is not what are we going to do now that there’s an apocalypse, but what are we going to study. To study English is to be a jack-of-all-trades. You have to gain some understanding of a vast range of material.

If, for example, you happen to study Milton’s great poem, Paradise Lost, you have to master not just mainstream Christian theology, but also the private heresies to which Milton subscribed in order to understand the politics of the poem. Because Milton was a radical Republican and political theorist, you’ve also got to understand something about the history of political thought. To grasp the cosmology and the science of the poem, you’ve got to know something about the history of astronomy. To understand how the poem was published and distributed, you need to understand something about the economic and technical history of publishing. And, to understand the literary dimensions of the poem, you need to know the classical tradition and the works that have been influenced by Milton, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein right up to Philip Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials.

To study literature is to get an education in the history of culture and that is what the new Adams and Eves in the postapocalyptic world will need.

Best Rebuttal: (To Martha Paas) I was struck by Martha’s image that economics is the key. But the problem is, when I thought about what was at the end of that key, it was a piece of subprime real estate.

Closing Remark: I have to stop and get some gasoline before I drive home. I’m not going to wonder how the gas got there. I’m not going to think about where I got the money to buy it. I’m not worried about how the internal combustion engine of my car works. The thing is, when I get home I’m going to read a poem.


sheri-on-trans.jpgSherri Goings
Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Opening Statement: I want to point out that Tim said absolutely nothing about computer science. However, I understand that he studies a period long before computers existed.

I’m pretty sure that robots are going to take over the world and we will need computers to fight them. There are at least a hundred computers in the room right now, probably far more. So here are some things that you will not have anymore if we give up the discipline of computer science:

Google and everything that Google does! Google is probably inventing stalkernet right now. You would miss Google a lot. Facebook. Online calendars. Weather forecast sites so we can track all the crazy weather patterns that are going to come about. YouTube. Being able to watch Ultimate Frisbee videos on YouTube is very important for me to get better at my defense.

On a more global note, if we give up computer science, we are going to have to give up a whole lot of things that actually help people, like medical imaging. And the most important argument is that we’re going to want everyone who is left to be using their brains to solve our problems. Wikipedia lets anyone learn new information and online news sources keep everyone informed with what is going on in the world. We can take computers to the far corners of this new planet and get everyone involved in making decisions and policies and inventing new things. That, to me, is incredibly important, both now and after the apocalypse. We want every single person involved in governing this new world, and computers will be the way to do it.     

One final thought: Can you really imagine a world without LOLcats?”

Best Rebuttal: (To Tim Raylor) I’m just saying, who do you want on the spaceship with you? Do you want an English professor reading beautiful poems about space?”

Closing Remark: “I can’t help but reiterate—we are on a spaceship.”


And the winner is . . .

After much mockery and mirth, the students voted for the professor they wanted on the spaceship. Following a dramatic knee-drumroll, computer scientist Sherri Goings was declared the winner. Her acceptance speech was brief: “Let’s face it, everyone else spent a lot of their time actually arguing things. I spent none of mine. Computer science is self-explanatory. You made my job easy. This is pretty awesome. Thank you.”

This transcript has been edited for style, length, and clarity.


Web Extra: What discipline do you think should have won? Cast your vote for one of these five disciplines, or leave a comment below to tell us why some other discipline should have won.


  • December 18 2013 at 7:18 pm
    William (Bill) Moseley

    Clearly geography should have won such a contest (ask Prof Tsegaye Nega in ENTS).  With its focus on spatial patterns, human-environment interactions and global-local connections, geography would be critical for human life in a post-earth world.  Furthermore, the field's ability to integrate humanities, social science and natural science perspectives would be your best bet for bringing a liberal arts perspective to future questions and problems.

    William (Bill) Moseley, Carleton Class of '87 and Professor of Geography at Macalester College


  • December 24 2013 at 9:58 am

    Theories are nice things to discuss over coffee (there is a Keurig machine on this spaceship, I hope!) but if we're going to keep this spaceship operating and survive on the new planet, we should give the remaining seat to Katherine Hayes '92, founder of Fixity. (the Voice, p.16-17) She can fix anything that breaks with just a simple collection of non-electric hand-operated tools. I'll bet she can build anything we need once we get to our destination, too.

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