As detailed elsewhere, this post presents some notes I wrote up in fall 2011. (I briefly posted this and several related items in my Improving Higher Education blog, but I believe they belong here instead.)
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As part of my preparation to write an essay on a specific issue on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) produced by Educational Testing Service (ETS), I decided to try writing out some essays. I thought this might help to acquaint me with the topics and give me some practice writing. This post describes that process and shows the results.
ETS provided general guidelines on what an issue essay should look like, as well as advice on preparing for this task. One of the first questions that people ask about writing assignments is, often, how long should it be?
The Official Guide provided samples of essays to illustrate what kind of writing would qualify for a score of 6 (the best score), 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1 (the worst score) in these two sections. The sample essays meriting scores of 5 and 6 were visibly longer than the others. I found their word counts to be as follows: the 6-point issue and argument essays were 627 and 540 words long, respectively, and the 5-point issue and argument essays were 382 and 505 words long, respectively. It looked like 550 words would just about fill a page in 12-point single-spaced Times Roman, with one-inch margins. Consistent with what I was seeing in the instructions, the situation seemed to be that these essays would be less polished, more hurried, and somewhat wordy. In other words, get the ideas down; make it as clean as you can; but don’t be a perfectionist. My copy of Princeton Review’s Cracking the GRE (2009, p. 288) says that research into the GRE demonstrates that the graders (i.e., PhD students, for the most part) favored length (presumably meaning more ideas, arguments, and evidence) rather than novelty, grammar, or other mechanical features.
The Official Guide went on to explain that there would be variations on the general theme of the section. In the issue analysis section, there would typically be a statement of an issue (e.g., “As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate”) followed by a few lines of instructions (e.g., “Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim and the reason on which that claim is based”). (Another example: “Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position”).
The actual instructions that I would face on the GRE would be drawn from one of six such sets of instructions shown in the Official Guide. The variations among those six instruction sets might be summed up as follows: “Write a response that indicates how you agree or disagree with the statement, claim, recommendation, or policy. Discuss the most significant factors, conditions, examples, and consequences that support your claim, as well as those that oppose it. Explain how, on balance, these considerations ultimately make your position the best of the available positions on the issue.” An explanation of how (in their words, “to what extent”) I agreed or disagreed with a viewpoint would emphasize limits and exceptions rather than complete, unqualified acceptance or rejection. The Official Guide did indicate (p. 17) that a middle ground could be a valid position. It seemed, in short, that the assignment portion of the essay (as distinct from the substantive portion, with which I would be agreeing or disagreeing) would be somewhat generic, for purposes of advance preparation. Of course, I would still want to respond to the actual assignment on test day — not convert it into something that I found more comfortable.
Although ETS indicated that there was no right answer to these issue pieces, my brief introduction to testing bias suggested that, if in doubt, it would probably be to my advantage to go with a viewpoint that a tester — that is, a PhD student — would be likely to agree with. I say “if in doubt” because it seemed that, if I had a number of strong arguments going the other way, it would be a mistake not to use them. Even then, though, I would probably not go with a position, in either direction, that would tend to be considered extreme. One thing to consider in this regard was that apparently ETS would share the actual essays with the schools to which I would be applying.
Writing Sample Essays from the Issue Pool
ETS provided the actual list (what it called the “pool”) of issue topics that might appear on the test. In other words, it seemed that the issue I would see on the GRE would be exactly one of the issues provided on that list.
ETS’s list of topics was very long and highly repetitive. Some of the topics also seemed pretty boring. To reduce the tedium and eliminate the redundancies, I combined and rephrased their pool into a smaller list of topics or positions. This approach seemed sensible from a writer’s perspective. The problem was that, by artificially making a given topic more complex and interesting, I was not entirely preparing myself for the challenge of thinking of interesting things to say about what might be a very limited assignment on the actual exam. There didn’t seem to be a realistic alternative, though. I certainly wasn’t going to write up complete essays for each of the multiple ways in which ETS’s list presented the same topics, over and over again.
So I proceeded to write up a few sample essays, as shown below. Note: It would be a bad idea, on exam day, to regurgitate a memorized copy of what I have written here, or what any other person has already written in response to a sample exam question that one might encounter during test preparation. In its PDF entitled Introduction to the Analytical Writing Section of the GRE revised General Test (p. 5), ETS warned that it reserved the right to cancel test scores if its similarity-detection software encountered “text that is substantially similar to that found in one or more other GRE essay responses.” That same document further warned against using “ideas or words” that appeared to be “borrowed from elsewhere or prepared by another person.” On the other hand, ETS encouraged test-takers to prepare by swapping essays with other students, to see what they would write. Indeed, almost everything that a person would write, in response to the sorts of essay topics posed by ETS, would probably already have been said by someone somewhere. I was not sure how ETS planned to patrol against the use of borrowed ideas. The ironic thought did cross my mind, as I read those words, that ETS could have done a better job of expressing itself there.
In my essay preparation, the writing was faster at home than it would be in the actual GRE test environment, where I would be using ETS’s very limited word processor, instead of my copy of Microsoft Word, with its large set of custom word abbreviations that made the typing faster. I expected that it would also be harder to compose my thoughts in the small viewing window that, for some reason, I thought I would find in the GRE’s word processor. The latter worry faded after I bought ETS’s Official Guide book and ran the accompanying CD, with its example of an actual GRE test. The word processor was limited in features but not especially limited in size.
After a few tries, I decided that I would probably be able to put together a respectable essay within the time limit. In this, I may have had an advantage over some test-takers, in that I had studied some of these topics. ETS said that the use of “persuasive examples” could be crucial to a good score, at least in response to an essay assignment that required the test-taker to provide examples. Plainly, a person who is familiar with a debate is going to have a greater store of examples to draw from. The same would likely be true for essays requiring the presentation of “compelling reasons” or other sorts of information possessed by a person who has studied an area. Knowing what one is talking about is normally helpful in writing a persuasive essay. In short, it did seem that prior familiarity with topics could be very helpful in responding to, say, an assignment to discuss governmental funding of the arts, to cite one example from the GRE’s issue pool.
So, as I say, I wrote up several sample essays. I couldn’t know in advance what scores these sorts of essays would get. Even if I did spend $13 on ETS’s ScoreItNow! online writing practice, it apparently would give me scores from an automated scoring program, not from the human graders like those who would be reading my real exam. Alternately, as I had learned from exposure to written GRE prep materials, if I signed up for someone else’s essay prep course, I couldn’t be sure of how closely their approach would mirror that of ETS.
I’d been told I was a good writer, so I was confident I’d be somewhere in the upper part of the scoring range — at or above 4.5, I figured. It was somewhat reassuring that ETS said, in its Introduction PDF (above), that all of its readers had “undergone careful training, passed stringent GRE qualifying tests, and demonstrated that they are able to maintain scoring accuracy” (p. 5). I say “somewhat” because few things are ever completely bulletproof. For instance, as I looked at ETS’s Scoring Guide for the issue essay, I noticed that there was not a precise explanation of how an essay receiving a score of 6 would differ from one receiving a score of 5. Of the five bullet points offered under each of the Score 6 and Score 5 rubrics in that Guide, it seemed that some were virtually identical (e.g., “articulates a clear and insightful position” versus “presents a clear and well-considered position” or, in both cases, “demonstrates facility with the conventions of standard written English”). There were no percentages assigned to those five bullet points, so I could not tell whether my ability to sound like a professor would count for more than a reader’s belief that I had not argued my point persuasively (perhaps because I was not as familiar with the subject as some other test-takers, or because I had taken a position with which the reader did not agree). I could see how ETS had dressed up the Score 5 sample essay to be a bit ridiculous; but having been on both faculty and student sides of the college paper grading relationship — and having been graded by some faculty who weren’t necessarily very good at it — it did seem likely that some percentage of test-takers would be marked as inferior on this portion of the test when perhaps they were not.
Anyway, I did write the several dry runs shown below. At a half-hour a pop, I decided not to invest the additional 25 hours or so that would have been required to respond to them all, plus any extra hours I might have devoted to superficial reading on any topics with which I was not familiar. This, I think, would be the case for most takers of the GRE. It seemed, then, that a minority of test-takers, having excess free time and perhaps being most extremely oriented toward test scores, would tend to have an advantage over their peers. Absent data on ETS scoring, I could not say whether that advantage would be noticeable — would result, that is, in an average incremental increase in test scores; and without data on test preparation (not to mention the time that I would have had to invest in order to research a scholarly article on the question), I could not be sure whether the number of test-takers utilizing such extreme preparation approaches would be sufficient to affect the scoring of essays generally.
The Sketch Approach
After writing those several trial essays, and deciding not to write responses even to the compressed set of ~50 remaining topics shown below, I thought about switching to more of an outline or sketch approach, where maybe I’d just try to identify some relevant thoughts about each of those topics. I started doing this for one topic (below); but after spending several minutes brainstorming an unedited set of questions that I would want to address in an essay, it occurred to me that this effort was leading toward the approach that I would have preferred to take on the exam: sketch out the problem, so as to demonstrate that a graduate-level response to it could and should not be attempted on the cheap, and then proceed to write up a thoughtful and carefully phrased response to just a subpart of the issue. It was not clear to me why that form of writing would be treated as relatively undesirable in a grad school admissions test.
What I achieved, in those several minutes of writing questions about that essay topic, was perhaps to prime myself. It seemed, that is, that I may have bought myself a few minutes of extra time under examination conditions: I had already done a bit of superficial thinking about the topic, and would thus enjoy a slight advantage if I did find myself facing that particular topic on exam day.
But now I had a new problem. I had a bunch of thoughts, but I would need to organize them. This called to mind the indications, on an ETS webpage, that this was “a task in critical thinking and persuasive writing” and that I might find useful “advice on persuasive writing and argumentation” in “college textbooks on composition.” I happened to have an old Harbrace College Handbook. It said, “The purposes of non-fiction writing are often classified as expressive, informative, and persuasive. Although these purposes are usually combined in an extended piece of writing, one of them almost always predominates” (p. 347). Naturally, this statement raised the question of why ETS had deemed persuasive writing especially important — why, for instance, my lawyerly abilities should put me at an advantage over someone whose nonfiction writing might be more creative (humorous, for instance, or inspiring, or thought-provoking). Harbrace (p. 349) was of the opinion that, actually, “the purpose of college writing is usually informative” rather than persuasive. So why did the GRE not favor those gifts that lay in the direction of patience, simplicity, curiosity, or whatever other virtues may be required, for purposes of accumulating, organizing, and presenting vast quantities of knowledge?
My Harbrace had a number of suggestions, including some (e.g., “analyze your audience”) that I had already done or that seemed obvious. It said, “Construct a focused, specific thesis statement containing a single main idea.” This was a challenge for me, because I often found that, as I started to get into the nuts and bolts of an argument, I would think of new things or encounter new information that could prompt me to change my original view. Maybe that was an example of a difference between persuasive and informative orientations; maybe I was not entirely happy with lawyers’ approaches to writing. The GRE seemed to prioritize an ability to take a position and stick with it, over the ability to change one’s mind. Obviously, for purposes of presenting a nice, slick essay, I would have problems if I spent 20 minutes working my way into a viewpoint and then decided that honesty and accuracy required an entirely different perspective. ETS’s materials didn’t seem to contain any examples of cases where people had constructively and inventively done what scientists and other creative people do when reality doesn’t match their original expectations. Would I get a better score if I tied it off, put a ribbon on it, and then said, “OK, that’s the view I started out with; now let me tell you why it’s wrong”? Apparently not; the GRE’s instructions seemed pretty unidimensional.
My Harbrace manual also said that I could use one or more formal (e.g., outline) and/or informal (e.g., list of factors, timeline) ways to structure my thoughts. The premise seemed to be, not that my thoughts were naturally structured within my brain (as distinct from e.g., being linked in a complex web of ideas and emotions), but rather that I needed to invent a structure to help the reader understand my thoughts. To take it a step further, what I was getting about the GRE seemed to be, not only that I had to invent such a structure, but also that I had to make it apparent to the grader. It seemed unlikely that a seemingly chaotic and yet ultimately persuasive essay would get a top score. So, to adapt the Harbrace statement, in a sense it appeared that the GRE writing assignment was not to write a persuasive piece about the topic (e.g., governmental funding for the arts); it was, rather, to write a persuasive piece about my ability to write a persuasive piece about that topic, where the rule was that the persuasion had to be done implicitly. That is, I couldn’t come right out and say, “Now I’m going to show you that I know how to use an example, by using Example A on the subject of arts funding.” I was supposed to just use the example, in the understanding that the reader didn’t give a hoot about arts funding, and was instead focusing entirely on my choice and presentation of Example A. In this sense, it seemed that I could get very different reactions from an ETS grader as distinct from someone who actually knew and cared about the subject of funding for the arts.
In offering these remarks, I am incidentally illustrating how an orientation toward a rushed and superficial form of writing can lead in a very different direction from a more thoughtful and investigative orientation. This is not a focused, 500-word essay. I would expect that the people who are still reading these words, at this point, would tend to be those who have more than a superficial interest in the GRE.
In other words, while I can understand that the ability to write functionally is a prerequisite for success in graduate school, I am concerned that the GRE’s issue essay assignment may, to some degree, favor those who take a relatively facile approach to knowledge. I express that and other concerns, partly as a layperson’s relatively uninformed input into scholarly debates on standardized testing and essay grading, but also partly as a suggestion that these are among the sorts of discoveries that I, in particular, had to wrestle with as I prepared for the GRE. I had to force-fit myself into an approach to writing that did not seem to be as straightforward and obvious as ETS had attempted to portray it; and in making that sort of effort, it seemed I would be at a disadvantage compared with some test-takers who were naturally inclined in the GRE’s direction — and who, as such, might actually be less suited for scholarly work. If I did nonetheless get a high score on the GRE, it could be despite, not because of, my intellectual abilities and proclivities. And so, in the test-prep phase, it might develop that a person like me would have to devote inordinate amounts of time to overcome or suppress tendencies that would actually be beneficial to research and practice at the doctoral level.
As may be obvious by now, I was much more interested in critiquing the GRE than I was in preparing for it. This reflected upon my personal tendencies, but not necessarily in a negative way. It seemed that at least some GRE takers may have reservations or issues that deserve to be taken into account. In other words, graduate schools could profitably seek to identify and understand not only those who have stellar GRE scores, but also those who, for good reason, might not do so well on the GRE. In my process of preparing grad school applications, unfortunately, I had not found that the nation at large, or many particular schools, were making a point of collecting applicant feedback on grad school marketing and admissions processes. In other words, research into a number of concerns expressed in this post did not appear to enjoy the option of drawing upon a comprehensive database of information provided by potential applicants across the board. It appeared, rather, that researchers exploring such matters would have to conduct and reconcile relatively spotty and expensive investigations. This seemed ironic if not worrisome, considering that we are talking, here, about threshold aspects of the processes by which such researchers themselves become qualified to steer graduate school admisisons.
I know these remarks go on at length, and as such may not interest people who just want to prepare for the GRE. Fortunately, there are many other resources for those people, and I don’t blame them at all for turning elsewhere. I also realize that these remarks do not follow much of an outline. But some who have encountered the sorts of concerns presented here, during their own GRE preparation, may nonetheless appreciate that I have not researched and written this as a highly polished piece that would eventually be published, after a year or two of editorial processes involving rejection and eventual acceptance by various professional journals to which such people may not have access. The question confronting me, this fine September day, was whether I should write something, albeit imperfect, at the time when these concerns emerged, instead of writing nothing at all. In thus adopting a form of writing not valued by the GRE, this post illustrates a divergence from the GRE’s unstated premise that the applicant is generic and individually insignificant — that, in other words, s/he is to be given only one chance to present his/her competence as a writer, and must do so only in certain stylized ways, and on previously vetted topics, all chosen according to the convenience of schools and graders, rather than being heard from in an interpersonal or multidimensional manner. It is true that graduate study in some universities does resemble service at a fast-food restaurant in some regards. Whether that is the best approach for selection of doctoral applicants (or of master’s applicants who could someday become doctoral applicants) is another question.
Having expressed the foregoing thoughts, I came back to the question of how to construe this assignment to write an essay. The conclusion seemed to be that this was not an attempt at real writing; it was just a stylized activity in which I had to demonstrate a certain kind of writing ability. Though I liked to think that I would get a score of 6 on each of the GRE’s two written assignments, I had to realize that were some unpredictable variables (regarding e.g., distractions, anxiety) in what might be happening in my mind, in this first section of the GRE, and also in the minds of the graders. Unlike most graduate applicants, I had already published things; I would be referring to those publications in my grad school applications; and I could hope that schools would attribute slippage (from a score of 6 down to 5 or so) to the testing environment rather than to my actual writing abilities. If I was going to invest time in a written effort, the application essay seemed to be the proper place for it.
For such reasons, I decided not only not to write out complete responses to the various topics, but also not to spend five or ten minutes sketching out questions and a possible structure for each of the topic areas (below) that might appear on the exam. This was essentially a minor gamble that 30 minutes would give me enough time to come up with some thoughts on a topic, and some adequate way of arranging them. It was also consistent with my general tendency to try to focus on activities that seemed relatively important — that is, activities that did not seem inordinately trivial and/or tedious. In this decision, I was rejecting the view, implicit in the GRE and in grad schools’ decisions to use it, that highly standardized techniques of applicant selection, spanning utterly dissimilar disciplines, were especially relevant within particular programs. My years in grad school had rarely if ever required me to write an essay like the one on the GRE. Those years had likewise revealed virtually no reason to study geometry, as the GRE requires. I did not expect to get a score of 3 on the writing portion of the GRE; but if I did, would that somehow negate my publications? Would it outweigh a score of 800 (170, under the new grading regime) on the GRE’s verbal section? Not that I could expect to get an 800, but after these weeks of exam preparation, it was rather tempting to treat the analytical writing section as an opportunity rather than a burden — perhaps even to have some fun with it, but in any event not to take it too seriously.
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For almost any tool, there was previously the ability to perform the task without it. The tool is commonly understood as facilitating a step forward: the tedious or difficult task is handled more quickly and/or easily, making it possible for a person to move ahead to other goals. Some tools assist in physical tasks; others assist in mental tasks. A person who becomes adept with an electronic calculator may no longer be able to use an abacus well, but this is not a drawback for most purposes, though it may be in e.g., a setting where calculator batteries are unavailable.People are admittedly inferior to their tools in a variety of physical and mental applications. No human can do what a bulldozer or a computer can do. The spectrum of tools that might be included under the “technology” rubric includes a remarkable collection of things that people cannot do anymore. They cannot chew as well as they used to, because their food preparation technology has made their meals more manageably masticated. They cannot walk barefoot because, for better or worse, they have gotten used to cushioned soles.
It may be a bit scary, on a different level, to observe that thought processes (as distinct from physical activities) are now being assimilated to the machine at an unprecedented rate. It is no longer a matter of punching keys on a faster calculator. We are now seeing people who cannot read a map because they have become accustomed to GPS. They cannot read a book – or at least they don’t tend to – because it does not compete with the distractions of the connected computer. They can’t count change at the grocery store unless the machine tells them how. In short, there is concern that vital as distinct from primitive skills are being neglected – that technology has somehow moved from being a reality-negotiation tool to being a surrogate for reality itself. It is as if reading a book or a map, or being able to count change, were simply not important anymore. Or perhaps it is a case of prematurity, in which the technology is ready to push aside the old skill long before that old skill has actually matured beyond relevance.
This prospect may be most worrisome in the sphere of social skills and interactions. Robots may well become social surrogates someday, sufficing and perhaps even excelling in certain kinds of erstwhile interpersonal interactions. Yet this portends that, as in the case of food preparation, the formerly essential strong jaws and other equipment of food acquisition and digestion will give way to a certain softness and ineptitude – an inability to forage for oneself, that is, in the harsh brushland of human-human interaction. Who would want to deal with all the pain and nonsense of human relationships if, instead, one could cut to the chase with an automaton whose ego simply will not get in the way?
We aren’t there yet. But the prospect is becoming imaginable. And at this halfway point, we do already see that technology isolates people in the same house with one another, even as it brings together people from around the world for the sake of common interests. It is as though the coarse, multipurpose Swiss Army Knife of traditional human interaction is being supplanted by a veritable toolbox of highly precise, special-function instruments for particular purposes. I can’t have a successful conversation with my neighbor, but I can get a derivative sense of what that would be like from watching some movies online; I don’t want to expose myself to the potential tedium and/or embarrassment of socializing with a bunch of people like me, but I can get the feeling that I am almost doing something like that by chatting pleasantly with a collection of similarly minded individuals on Facebook.
As those examples suggest, though, this technology problem is not a new one. The authors of Middletown reported that, between the 1890s and the 1920s, people had ceased to get together and sing at one another’s hosues because now they had radio, and they could hear how poor their singing was when compared to that of the professionals. Kids were pairing off, by the Roaring Twenties, rather than running in packs around the neighborhoods, because now they had cars, and cars were conducive to that. For that matter, the Industrial Revolution itself was surely a case of technology upending the settled (and in some social senses superior) old ways, eroding social networks in the process until, today, we may really be talking only about the extinction of only a relatively minor set of residual social niceties.
Maybe the problem is technology indeed, but not only and maybe not even primarily in a contemporary sense. Maybe the big battles in this war were fought and lost a long time ago; maybe we’re now just cleaning up the leftovers. If you really, really value human interaction, wouldn’t you try to return to a world in which it was the most important thing? Before industry, quite possibly; maybe even before agriculture, when the tribe was everything? It seems like something to ponder. Here, the point is just that yes, technology does erode abilities; ordinarily that’s considered a good thing, a part of progress; but maybe it’s a slippery slope that we’ve been sliding down for a long time.
Word count: 883
Not timed. Probably an hour or so.
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State and federal governments should fund cities, because cities are the centers for the most important traits of societies.
[This reply doesn’t address the first clause. I added it afterwards when I noticed that this topic overlapped with another one.]
Let’s subject the proposition to a test. “Chicago is a center of the most important traits of the United States.” Well, maybe. Chicago has many characteristics of big cities, especially older big cities: an impressive downtown, for example; a lake and/or river at its heart; dense building giving way to less dense construction for many miles around; a population exceeding one million. New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and others have similar traits.
But are these the most important traits of the U.S.? Maybe a more generic analysis would help. Chicago has cars, streets, boutiques, museums, car dealerships, and all sorts of other enterprises, institutions, organizations, structures, and organized activities that are more or less interchangeable with those that one could find in any number of large and small cities. The point here would be that Chicago is not an epitome but rather a mere illustration of what is most important about the country.
Surely, though, this is not the sort of thing that someone would have in mind, if they were looking for what’s really important about America. They would look, perhaps, for fields of amber grain and purple moutaintop majesties; or maybe for the American Dream, with its two cars in the garage and a white picket fence; or possibly for Yankee ingenuity or for One Nation Under God. Not to be humorous, here, nor to knock Chicago, great city that it is, but we seem to be trending in an adverse direction.
Well. There are always other cities to consider. New York, for example, with its Goldman Sachs and its Mafia; Miami, conduit for the drug trade; Los Angeles, gridlocked on the 405 freeway. Yes, a discouraged soul could maintain, these are indeed the repositories of what this land has become.
Possibly one should define “important.” Important to whom, or for what? There can be no quarrel that, if all people are born equal, then the sheer numbers of souls and peccadilloes found in Manhattan will outdistance those found in Iowa City by a country mile. Or more. It would be hard to maintain that all those people, with all their hopes and gripes, are not somehow important for the United States.
No doubt there are cities that do embody, in some sense, the essence of a society. Rome, for example, must play some significant role in the makeup of the Vatican. But as you move toward Moscow, nearly lost in the endless miles of Russia, you could begin to develop a healthy skepticism that a city is much more than a somewhat concentrated expression of the same Volksgeist found in any assemblage of members of the society of which it partakes.
What cities have is a concentrated dose of people, activity, money, and other resources relevant to the accumulation of knowledge, culture, and growth. This is not minor. You won’t see me applying to graduate school in a sheep pasture. Cities are centers, not in the sense that they embody what is best about a land, but only in the (not unimportant) sense that they bring together a lot of the people (along with their values, beliefs, hopes, and ambitions) who make the land what it is. A city is a great excuse for people to pool their best. But it is not the only one. People contribute their essence to other forms of collective activity in, for example, the bound volumes that accrete over time in libraries, and on the Internet. A city is, in short, one kind of center for the most important traits of societies.
Word count: 593
Time: 22 minutes
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College should encourage you to pursue a high-paying career. It shouldn’t allow you to get a degree in something if there are no jobs in it, even if that’s where your talents and interests are. And it should prevent you from pursuing a degree in something where you don’t have any special aptitude.
This somewhat separate issue could have been combined into this topic: A sensible society would identify and foster the skills of talented kids. Also: Government funding of the arts corrupts them and/or makes them available to everyone. Also: Teachers should design courses based on what students want to study. Also: Art is pointless if most people don’t understand it. Also: Don’t fund art if you haven’t adequately funded jobs and food.
Education does not equal career. People commonly link them, with some good reason: careers frequently do require education, and education does often lead to a career. But education can (and often should) be about something other than – possibly even opposed to – a career. For example, some forms of education – such as education in the religion of one’s culture, or in beneficial uses of nature, or in parenting – may have no relevance to one’s career, and yet may be vital to personal and social integration. Ethical education, teaching a person to identify and speak up about things that are destructive or evil, may actually hamper employability, insofar as the person who diligently practices what s/he has learned in such education may find that s/he is essentially unemployable in a variety of corporations and industries.
The form of education expected in many careers is of a “practical” nature, in the most instrumental sense of the term. Some doctors have been trained to save lives, always, at all costs. They have not always been knowledgeable or positioned on questions of whether they should do so – when, for example, the patient has an ambiguous living will, or will continue to experience hideous pain for as long as s/he remains alive. Society has tended to want doctors who are expert at the mechanical aspects of saving lives. Sophistication in the spiritual, emotional, and ethical issues has been slower to develop. One could offer similar examples across a spectrum of career situations – regarding, for example, the plumbers who set up Hitler’s gas chambers, or the lawyers who display skill in implementing the wishes of predatory clients.
It makes sense to link career training, as distinct from education, to employability outcomes. Someone who is training to be a plumber or a doctor should be able, at the end, to do what plumbers and doctors need to do. These sorts of activities can reasonably be funded, to varying degrees, by the trainees themselves. That is, as sometimes happens now in various university programs, it may seem only fair that business students, headed for relatively lucrative careers, pay tuitions that subsidize music students, who make an invaluable contribution to society but are relatively low-paid. At a certain point, however, even that example recalls the contrast between career training and education, which can be generally said to serve interests beyond the expectations of likely employers.
What role should the university play in this sort of thing? The foregoing remarks suggest that economics can and should dictate part, but not all, of the answer. Where a school seeks to train people for practical employment whose compensation justifies the time and cost of schooling, it makes sense to apply financial criteria. For example, the school of engineering whose graduates encounter few and low-paying job offers may rightly be reformed or closed, in favor of other schools of engineering whose graduates do succeed in obtaining the more typically positive employment experiences (in financial terms) that one might expect in engineering.
On the other hand, where excellence is a matter of education that departs somewhat from mere career training, it could be reasonable – it may sometimes be essential – for the university president, the dean of the school, or other academic officials to take a stand and defend that academic unit for its intangible contributions to the academic environment and to society generally over the long haul. Yes, the sculpture major may have to drive a taxi to maintain his/her artsy indulgences. Or perhaps, in a more advanced society, at some point it becomes appropriate to subsidize such pursuits with tax dollars. Society does need sculptors. Generally, a superior society may be one that develops its capabilities, at varying rates, across the spectrum of human achievement, sometimes with the aid of tax dollars and charitable contributions.
With due regard to the practical limits upon what one can say, in general terms, across the several issues posed here, it appears advisable to distinguish education and training, and to recognize that the pragmatic considerations dominating questions of training are appropriately joined by nonpragmatic considerations when the discussion turns to education. An educated public is more than a skilled public. A well-run university will tend to be one that takes a balanced and broadly informed case-by-case approach to the question of how people should be chosen, and whether they should be supported, in their pursuits within a given field of study.
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Topic Sketched Out
The public doesn’t pay attention to wise people talking about problems. It takes a catastrophe.
Define “public” and “wise.” Is wisdom distinguishable from knowledge or expertise? Do we include the whole public, which virtually never pays unanimous attention to anything, or just the educated, voting, or socioeconomically advanced publics? What effect does catastrophe have? Do different kinds of problems bring out different degrees and/or kinds of attention? Do different catastrophes call forth different reactions from the general public in different countries? Is this something that has been consistently true over decades or centuries? How are the reflections of the wise being conveyed — do people have access to that literature? Can they understand it? Are the wise unanimous among themselves? Do I have research on this? In what sense is my opinionating on this any different than the fulminations of radio talk show hosts? Does wisdom exist in stasis until the moment of crisis, or does crisis rather dynamically affect the calculation of wisdom?
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I combined a number of other possible topics into topic groups like those above, but at this point circumstances and interest terminated my preparation for this part of the exam.