Cutthroat “Bathtub Debates” deem Humanities the discipline most fit for survival

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

An evil overlord race has used bananas, Viagra, and cough syrup to destroy all of the books (and most of the people) in the world, but three avatars of knowledge have managed to survive and are being summoned to the Antarctic by a group of intelligent penguins who wish to take back the planet. On their way down, the boat hits an iceberg and begins to sink. There are no lifeboats, but there is one bathtub, which can hold only one person.

Cutthroat “Bathtub Debates” deem Humanities the discipline most fit for survival

One scientist, one social scientist, and one humanist must debate: who gets the bathtub?

James Saxon ’09 came up with the scenario last summer, and spent most of the fall trying to find professors. He was also helped by Maria Macia ’07, who “managed the come-back of Bob Gross,” and Garth Sheldon-Coulson ’07 helped with advertising. Saxon brought the bathtub, though, and that’s what these intrepid paragons of knowledge were fighting for.

If the scenario seemed far-fetched, said moderator Bob Gross ’62, you could also look at it this way: “In 2025, the costs will be so high that the college will only be able to afford one division–in a sense, this is a first test in the planning effort to see… who’s going to be around in twenty years?” In addition to survival in 2025, the winner of the debate would take home a stuffed penguin.

Professor of Engineering Bruce Maxwell ’91, “a former Amos J. Peaslee debate member,” represented the sciences. He began his opening by looking at the microphone in front of him and saying “Look… all of you can hear me and I don’t even have to shout!” and proceeding to explain why the microphone worked, apologizing in advance to his colleagues “for using words that they’re going to have difficulty understanding.” Professor of History Timothy Burke, defending the humanities interjected, “That’s one narrative!” as Maxwell explained, “but it’s my narrative,” said Maxwell, and so he continued.

“I’m so glad we’re all here in this building,” he said, “and I notice that most of you are enjoying the chairs made out of steel… fleece vests made of polyester… oh, and you’re all able to see me right now because of these lights. Should you feel the urge to walk down the hallway, there’s indoor plumbing, too…” In an alternative universe where he didn’t get the bathtub, he told us, “I would be welcoming you to the campfire… or at least I would be if one of them knew how to make a fire.”

In this alternative universe, the humanist “would explain that our lives are nasty, brutish, and short, and what the meaning of nasty is in various different contexts, and that the word is separate from its meaning but meaning is fluid… and that shoveling BS might for some people have a meaning different from nasty!” The social scientist “would explain why our lives are nasty, brutish, and short… little investment on education or capital. He would say that Allison should collect nuts and David should crush them because of differential skills… oh, and the two of them,” he gestured towards his colleagues, “should be specialized in shoveling that stuff because they do it better than anybody else.” But valiant Maxwell “would stand up and offer you fire, and tools, and agriculture… did I mention indoor plumbing?”

The audience collectively shuddered at the vision of this world, but “fortunately we live in a universe where science has not yet been voted off the island… except in Kansas.” At this point Maxwell received a cell phone call, and answered with a properly scientific smirk. He went on to argue that “science takes the longest to develop… science needs to build on top of a scaffolding–if you lose that scaffolding it takes you a long time to recover.” It’s also the “most valuable in terms of amount of work per idea… how many of you have played Civilization? What do you invest most heavily in? Technology? You can’t even build Adam Smith until you’ve reached a certain level of technology!”

Another problem with putting anybody but Maxwell in the tub? “You’ve got to survive for four days in this thing–which one of us is going to know how to do that? This bathtub, it has a negative R-value, so you’ve got to find something that’s gonna give you a high R value… and then there’s figuring out what direction you need to go, or how to make a compass… it’s only worth putting somebody in the bathtub who’s actually going to make it to the penguin base!”

A strong argument, but Maxwell had one more weapon in his arsenal–“I’m the only Linux user here and this is a penguin!” The computer scientists in the room hooted in glee.

Professor Burke began by explaining that he had insurance–since history can be either a humanity or a social science, “if it’s not looking too good for humanities, I’m jumping ship!” Burke had made some assumptions about the prompt. First, “none of the people getting in the bathtub are jacks of all trades… judging from Bruce’s confidence that he can manufacture a compass out of a bathtub, he’s thinking engineers are like McGuyver!” This received a hearty laugh.

More importantly, Burke was assuming that each representative was the best in their particular field “we’re not bringing the person who does incomprehensible hegemonic critiques of telephone books from Upper Michigan… all of that boils down to fancy words that the humanist can leave behind.” What is the humanist bringing? The questions of “What is knowledge, how does knowledge work… what is culture, what is the art of being human?”

Burke pulled a scientific tool out of his belt for the next argument. “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny… if you want to recreate modern knowledge and you need one person, you start where it started… where does it start? It starts with humanists… you get science out of that, you don’t reverse engineer humanities out of science or social science.” Instead “you start with a kind of humanism that generated everything else… I admit that requires stripping away lots of layers of accumulated crud.”

Because of this history, “The humanist is in the best position to ask, what should we know and why and how should we know it… in a way that doesn’t presuppose the answer. The humanist is the only one who can generate an answer that isn’t humanism… he’s open-ended when talking with the penguins… a humanist is the only one who can open up the possibility that his knowledge has to go somewhere else.”

Furthermore, “the humanists’ knowledge is the only irreplaceable body of knowledge… we always hear that science can be reproduced, so OK, reproduce it! That applies to the hard social sciences as well, but if the humanist drowns, all culture is gone except for what the other ones read at the beach… unless the scientist can find a lot of monkeys to sit at a lot of typewriters.” Burke went for a sentimental example next. “If your house burns, insurance will buy you a new toaster, but it can’t replace the photo album… the humanist is the photo album.” This produced a collective sigh from the audience.

Burke also claimed that his discipline was the most universal. “Every one of us has a deeply primal need to ask someone else what the meaning of life is, somebody that we think has wisdom and knowledge, who is, I think, in some sense a humanist.” If you don’t have fire and agriculture, “you can live without knowing how to run a regression… but someday you are going to want help answering the question, ‘What are the arts of being human?’ The humanist is the only person who can provide that thing that at some point in time all people will reach out for.”

With these two titans of human knowledge having advanced their argument, Economics Professor Mark Kuperberg had the difficult job of defending social science. He removed the microphone from the podium first–“we should prove that we can do this without the technology,” he said, and was met with a chorus of “I can’t hear you!” But Kuperberg held his ground, explaining that “I’m participating in this debate under protest… I filed a protest because the natural scientists have not brought a natural scientist, they’ve brought an engineer.” The other day at that same podium, Kuperberg claimed, “Amy Vollmer said, and I quote, ‘An engineer is not a scientist!’… so if you think of all the things that Bruce talked about, they weren’t scientific achievements, they were engineering.”

“If we had a real scientist, say James Maxwell, we could talk about Maxwell’s equations,” he brandished a sheet of the equations well known to any physics student, “but what you want in this bathtub is useful knowledge… where in these equations do you see a sentence that says don’t stick your fingers in the plug?” Kuperberg went on to explain that an academic was really not somebody who should be given any sort of humanity-regenerating responsibility. “If your choice was a plumber versus an academic of any sort… it’s a no brainer! You choose the plumber, bcause what can the academic actually do?”

He also pointed out that the Humanities brought a historians instead of a true humanist, since “the thing with the humanities is, you’ve got to give them a handicap… Let’s say they brought a philosopher, they’d say, let’s imagine no human landed at Antarctica, so does Antarctica exist?” This received a great laugh. “That’s a grave insult to those penguins who tried to save us.” And a greater one. “Or they might have brought someone from English literature… the person would say the iceberg was a text, it didn’t actually hit anything, the boat is a text… that brilliant description of heroic penguins this debate started with was a text, could you imagine?” And historians? On one hand “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but on the other hand, “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” Need any more proof that history is useless? These two quotes are both from the same historian.

So, why should an economist be on the boat? First off, Kuperberg said “I’m not going to defend taking a political scientist on the boat… if you’re going to start society from scratch, you want an economist. Two words, Robinson Crusoe.” A student interjected “Totally a novel!” and Kuperberg went on to say, “well, if you Google him with Economics, you get 240,000 hits. Why is that?” Maxwell couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say, “You have technology.”

And yet, Kuperberg debated on, showing us graphs that charted the hours of leisure against the pounds of yams that Crusoe could gather, “Robinson’s preference contour, where you can see his decisions with respect to yams versus leisure… and Robinson’s Choice, which tells you how to optimally choose the amount of leisure time versus the amount of yams collected.” Kuperberg’s conclusion? “There are many people in this audience who would have better allocated their time studying for an exam tomorrow!”

The opening statements were followed by a free-for-all, of which we can only reproduce some of the highlights.

Maxwell asked Burke “Why can’t we all create art?” to the reply “Well, you can… why can’t we all create science?” Maxwell replied, “Because you need a scaffold to build science on.” But Burke had the last word. “Doesn’t it help to know what’s been done before in art?… It takes thousands of years to think of throwing paint on campus, it’s a very sophisticated moment.” Maxwell looked puzzled. “Well,” said Burke, “it takes even longer to appreciate it.” Maxwell shrugged. “I guess I haven’t gotten there yet.”

A student asked Burke, “What on earth is interpretation theory?” Burke answered, “It’s up to the reader to decide.” Later, there was the question, “Isn’t Burke the only one who can answer normative questions?” “I’ll just look wise now,” said Burke, “but later I’ll ask you what that question means.”

Many students were concerned about a science without morality. Maxwell explained, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than knowledge… it’s better to know something than to not know it, and believe incorrect things about what you do not know.” He finished, “I wouldn’t start with nuclear weapons.” “Yes,” interjected Burke, “but he would have all those penguins to experiment on.”

Who would be able to communicate with the penguins? The professors agreed that “it depends where you want to put linguistics.” Maxwell claimed linguistics, Kuperberg was excited about the possibility of trading with the penguins, and Burke explained, “I can think a lot about what I think they’re saying.”

An student who must have been an engineer asked, “Isn’t it true that without fire we never would have had leisure time for the pursuits of humanities?” Maxwell agreed, but Burke said, “I’m worried that this line leads to the engineers claiming things like walking erect…”

The question of “If you couldn’t save your own discipline, which would you save?” was answered in favor of the sciences, with both Burke and Kuperberg voting for it while Maxwell voted for the humanities.

The closing remarks recapitulated earlier arguments, with Kuperberg remarking that “they’re all kind of worthwhile disciplines… but that was the education department speaking.” The totally scientific “clapping” method chose the Humanities as the winner, and the penguin was bestowed upon a beaming historian, at which points the lights went out.

Consider that moment our first look at Swarthmore 2025: there might not be any lights, heating, or indoor plumbing, but we’ll still have interpretation theory to warm our hearts.


The Gazette’s article on the “Bathtub Debate” gave the impression that they sprung out of nowhere, and regrettably forgot to include the creators.

You can thank James Saxon ’09 for the debate: he came up with the scenario last summer, and spent most of the fall trying to find professors. He was also helped by Maria Macia ’07, who “managed the come-back of Bob Gross,” and Garth Sheldon-Coulson ’07, who helped with advertising.

A video of the debate can be found here.

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