The University Center was transformed into a safe house on May 13, amid a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies. No, this isn’t a typical Thursday night in Isla Vista, but the premise of UCSB’s first Zombie Debate.
The Zombie Debate, organized by the Associated Students Program Board and based on “The Life Raft Debate” held at various universities and made famous via an episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life, asks the audience to imagine that a zombie outbreak has taken society to the brink of extinction and UCSB, the only remaining safe house, has room to admit only one more member.
Seven professors—Jason Raley of the Education Department, Aaron Zimmerman of Philosophy, Jennifer Holt of Film and Media, Laurie Monhan of Art History, Jeff Moehlis of Mechanical Engineering, Dan Montello of Geography, and Daryl Cooper of Mathematics—were then required to argue that their discipline is the most valuable to society, making them best equipped to rebuild civilization and earn them that coveted last spot. A Media Arts and Technology graduate student, James Darling, played Devil’s Advocate, taking the position that none of the professors deserve to be saved. An audience vote determined the winner.
The topical matter of the debate was relevant for many students, in light of increasing debate over resource and budget management within the UC and the value of a degree in an increasingly tough job market. The tone of the event, however, was light and the debate was characterized by comedic jibes and gimmicks rather than serious academic discourse.
The mathematician, Cooper, took the stage in a jester’s costume, purporting that everything is mathematically based. He capped of his argument with a rendition of the tongue-twisting Major General’s Song from Pirates of Penzance in which he brags about his impressive and well-rounded education:
“I know the kings of England and I quote the fights historical
…I’m very acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
About binomial theorem I’m teaming with a lot o’news
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse
…I am the very model of modern Major General.”
Art historian Monham argued for the importance of the visual. “There is no purpose in using language to talk about something that makes no sense,” she said. “The irrational needs a place here.” She went on to say that an art historian is needed to provide avant garde stratagems to work through problems and to “tell us what we’ve done and what we haven’t tried…because the education system is working hard to make us all zombies.”
Moehlis, representing for mechanical engineering, took the stage with a silver contraption which he called the “telescopic hydraulic zombie brain crusher,” and which Holt described as “two sticks with nails attached.” Moehlis demonstrated how the contraption works by crushing a prototype of a zombie brain, namely a flesh-colored balloon. He argued that nanobots injected into the bloodstream could be used to kill the zombie virus and that his mechanical engineering skills would be key in rebuilding bridges and highways, facilitating transportation by building cars and “urban assault vehicles,” and providing electricity as “every power plant worker is a zombie… and presumably unconcerned with providing electricity to the public.” He concluded, “Finally, if all is lost and we have to abandon earth, I will build a rocket…You might say I’m a badass zombie slayer.”
Holt, of Film and Media, made the excellent point that her discipline knows the most about zombies, backing her claim with a rambling list of zombie movie titles including Scoobie-Doo on Zombie Island and Zombie Vegetarians. She went on to argue that film will bring culture and humanity to what would otherwise be a monolithic life raft. Entertainment helped people get through the Great Depression, she noted. “And you want to learn about science? We’ll just turn on the Discovery Channel,” Holt told the audience. “And Sesame Street,” she continued. “You guys are going to want to procreate, but what will you do with them?”
Geography’s Montello used the sheer visceral power of the catch-phrase to help his case, saying, “When zombies arrive, geography helps you survive.” Calling geography “the discipline of homeland security,” he added the element of threat: “What if you don’t choose geography tonight?” he asked the audience. “ [I’ll] join the zombies and hand over all my geography info. I ask you, what information would you least want to hand over to the zombies?”
Philosophy’s Zimmerman, the ultimate winner, declared, “This is at core a philosopher’s debate.” He argued that with philosophy, “We’ll be able to reconstruct the whole of knowledge, because philosophy is the mother of all knowledge.” Being a “jack of all trades, a master of none, is usually a weakness,” he said, “but works to my advantage in this case.”
Zimmerman also brought out the negative-campaigning tool chest so familiar in political contests. Poking fun at Moehlis, who he suggested might have “gone a little Rambo,” he said, “We might be dealing with an easy-to-handle zombie. Deciding the fate of the zombie is a job of an ethicist.” And, he said, “I have it on good authority that the mechanical engineer didn’t even build that brain crusher. His assistant did.” He added, “He can’t do anything without a lab! I didn’t even need a paper and pencil.” As for Film and Media, she “can’t bring her movie library and DVD player,” he objected. “You can’t bring stuff with you.” Then, without apology, he reversed that position in order to proffer an alluring campaign promise: “Okay, if I win I will bring a space ship. I will buy a space ship, how’s that?”
In his rebuttal, Education’s Raley, who was comparatively straight-laced throughout the debate, pointed out the absurdist arguments. “If I knew Jerry Seinfeld was here [referring to Zimmerman] I would have given him my suit!”
Devil’s Advocate Darling encouraged students to keep all seven professors out of the safe house. “What has their generation given us?” he asked. “A crippled economy, global warming, and now the apocalypse. Vote for someone with PhD in Kicking Ass and Taking Names.”
In the end, the philosopher won, with Cooper of the Math Department in third place and Moehlis of Mechanical Engineering in second.
Even though the debate did not, as Zimmerman graciously pointed out, really serve to gauge the real value of a particular field of study, the UCen conference room was filled to capacity within 15 minutes of opening and the crowd was incredibly enthusiastic throughout the contest.