I’ve been studying for the GRE and realized that the Analytical Writing section has forced me to develop an odd skill: composing deep, nuanced takes on issues within an extremely compressed time frame. If you’re not familiar with the exam, you can actually see a full set of essay prompts for the “Analyze an Issue” task here. Some of these topics are really quite interesting and could individually be worthy of full long-form articles, but alas I have had to try to distill my thoughts within the confines of a 30-minute window.
I thought it might be valuable for posterity (or any future test takers) if I shared some of my practice attempts here, in no particular order. You might notice they cover a wide range of contemporary topics, and I tried to interject a few current events as evidence for my arguments.
On whether teachers should praise or berate their students
Should teachers only celebrate wins and avoid confrontation by overlooking poor behavior? As a teacher, it may be tempting to only offer effusive praise for your students’ successes and overlook their shortcomings, but this practice will undoubtedly result in poor educational outcomes in the long run.
The first problem with this approach is that it lulls students into complacency, giving them a sense of accomplishment for every action no matter how minor and thus weakening intrinsic motivation. Even if the praise is scaled accordingly, it has been shown that some people often develop overconfidence in their abilities with even minor excesses of accolades. Subsequently, this overconfidence leads to a lack of motivation to work as they begin to subconsciously assume their success is due to natural skill as opposed to their effort.
Second, teaching without pointing out a student’s weaknesses results in leaving no room for improvement. The ability to identify weak points and create a plan to address them is a critical component of students’ development. A teacher’s core responsibility is to help their students find potential blind spots and provide the evaluative feedback necessary to craft a development plan.
While it may be tempting to focus only on a student’s successes and save the pain and awkwardness of pointing out flaws, this methodology short-changes students and limits their future growth. As teachers generally report finding more satisfaction from their work when they see their students grow into the best possible versions of themselves, it is in their interest to expand their efforts and highlight both positive and negative actions in their students.
On whether corporations should strictly serve shareholders
In orthodox capitalism, the ultimate responsibility of corporations is to benefit their shareholders. By strict definition, this means delivering the highest possible returns on investment, typically prioritizing profits over all else in seeking that goal. However, this simplistic view of capitalism tends to lead to short-term thinking. I believe a more modern approach would be one where corporations seek to balance three complementary pillars: supporting shareholders, benefiting their customers, and promoting long-term sustainability of the public environment. A focus on all three can enable corporations to evolve past short-term profit seeking machines and become long-lasting entities that stand the test of time.
First, there is no question that making money is a necessity for any corporation. However, it is worthwhile to reflect on the nature of why shareholders invested in the corporation in the first place. A corporation is not valuable if it generates a surplus of cash in one quarter but burns out in the next. Shareholders are looking for long-term growth prospects, and corporations should structure their business accordingly. This means planning for continuous innovation, shipping new products, and expanding into new markets, not blindly chasing cash.
Likewise, a corporation that does not seek to deliver sustained value to their customers will be similarly short-lived. If the consumers of a product are not satisfied, or they feel they are being exploited, they will not return to patronize the business any further. Certainly there are types of companies that can afford to burn through their customer base, but they are not the ones that stand the test of time.
This logic carries over to stewardship of the environment. If the operations of the corporation result in a world where human lives are shortened or resources must be consumed in keeping humanity safe from natural disasters, the market for their goods will evaporate. Therefore, it is actually in their interest to contribute to a sustainable environment for that is how they maintain the stability of their business and customers.
The three-pronged approach of building for shareholders, customers, and the environment all at once is a more enlightened way for corporations to continue their existence long into the future. In this way, corporations can redefine their value to society and hence redefine what capitalism means as a whole.
On whether young people should focus on developing cooperative or competitive skills
Whether young people are preparing for careers in government or industry, skills that engage a sense of cooperation will get them a lot further than those that encourage competition.
Realize that almost no great accomplishments of mankind were ever made by singular individuals alone. Even if there exists a prevailing and well-known genius in a field, there is far more often than not a team of colleagues, assistants, and peers that support them in their work. Neil Armstrong was backed by hundreds of engineers at NASA and Linus Torvalds has the thousands of developers that contribute to the Linux codebase every day, for example. Their accomplishments would have been impossible without coordination and alignment with others, and that is why the sense of cooperation is so essential in all their work.
Looking outside the immediate organization, one can also recognize that partnerships between organizations are essential as well. For example, when Samsung wants to build and ship a mobile smartphone, they must work with suppliers, manufacturers, logistics companies, and carriers around the world. A significant amount of effort must be expended in business development, which inherently requires a sense of cooperation. It is similar in governments as well – a country that partners with another on trade results in a partnership that reaps the most benefit for the citizens of both countries. Hence, the most successful enterprises are ones where leaders are able to reach out and find the win-win combinations that have mutual beneficiaries.
That being said, of course the nature of modern capitalistic enterprises is to compete, and healthy competition is essential for an innovative marketplace. It is the race to develop pharmaceutical drugs for profit that result in medical breakthroughs, and it is the drive for winning limited shares of consumers’ attention spans that propel the profits of social media and entertainment corporations. However, even within the competitive marketplace it is essential to have the ability to cooperate. The drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies must be approved by the FDA, manufactured, and distributed, involving negotiations with hundreds of other organizations for the process to go smoothly. A social media company might see an opportunity to preload their mobile application with a national carrier for more reach, which would require earnest cooperation between their business development teams. So even in a cutthroat capitalistic market, there is more to be gained from a little cooperation versus scorched earth competition.
In a world where humans inherently accomplish more when banding together, it is clear that leaders must be able to marshal the sense of cooperation both within themselves and their teams. Competition alone is helpful but not be sufficient for success. As they say: if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.
On whether there should be a forced national curriculum
Education is a critical investment for any nation aspiring to build a skilled and resilient workforce. While there may be many strategies for educating a populace on a mass scale, the most effective method would be to develop a national curriculum and require all students to complete it prior to seeking higher education.
First and foremost, the strategy of developing a national curriculum is a boon from an equity lens. Instead of allowing local jurisdictions to develop their own curriculums, which would lead to a haphazard patchwork of policies and a high variance in educational quality across the country, instituting a national standard would ensure that all students have the same opportunities to develop the skills required for future success in higher education. For example, if left to their own devices, a more rural community with fewer resources may not be able to develop a curriculum with as much rigor or comprehensiveness as one from a more wealthy community. National standards, backed with up requisite national funding, would ensure that students in those rural communities are not disadvantaged just because of where they happen to live. Ensuring that all students receive the equivalent level of education also gives them a better chance of having equal footing when applying for institutes of higher education: their ability to pass standardized tests currently required for admission will be more evenly distributed.
Setting a national curriculum also ensures a minimum bar for education. This is critical because the health of any political system that requires citizen input (i.e. most representative democracies) is highly dependent on citizens’ ability to think critically and process information that is given to them. For example, if all citizens had a basic committed level of knowledge about science, we could have more calm, rational debates about science policy based in facts, versus the often-chaotic and emotional debates we have today. This minimum bar would also be beneficial for the businesses that are set to employ students in the future. Knowing that the citizenry all possessed a standardized set of basic skills would greatly increase the size of the eligibility pool for employers, making it easier to hire and producing more consistent results.
It follows that with a stronger base workforce, the country as a whole would maintain competitiveness with other nations when it comes to industrial output. A highly skilled workforce can produce more advanced goods and optimize for productivity. Over time, if the nation upgrades its standard curriculum, we can expect to build an even stronger competitive advantage. For example, if we found that we could teach algebra to students at younger ages, allowing more time to develop advanced skills in calculus or statistics, we would essentially be upgrading our entire workforce with these skills over a generation. In turn, this would lead to a more skilled workforce, more advanced goods, and more optimized productivity once again.
It’s important to note that all of these benefits would only be seen if the nation invests properly in the system that delivers the education, as well as the curriculum itself. Proper funding for school infrastructure, teachers, and educational materials commensurate with the curriculum is essential to making all of these outcomes a reality. Only with this investment would we see the equity effect, meeting the minimum bar for all students, and maintaining competitiveness coming to fruition.
On whether history can effectively inform current decisions
Those who do not take the time to understand history are doomed to repeat it. This adage rings true today as well as at any point in human civilization. While we may need some distance from both current events and past events to get the full perspective for learning, we can get gain ample benefit from even a partial look at history to inform important decisions today.
One way this is evident can be seen in how the basics of human motivation do not fundamentally change over time. For example, the common aspirations of leaders to achieve more, win respect, and retain power have been constant as long as there have been humans to lead, and this manifests occasionally as wars on a global scale. Certainly the leaders fighting during World War II had similar motivations as those in World War I, and even today we live in constant tension over the possibility of a World War III given the temperaments of our current world leaders. We have no need to wait for World War III to come and pass before taking some learnings from the first two world wars. The connections between these events are already clear now, based in innate human tendencies that we can predict, and this should inform policy decisions by world leaders today.
The foundations of science and statistical data are another way history can inform decisions in the present, even when we have not fully evaluated current events. Global pandemics are a poignant example, since they inevitably arise and have plenty of precedence in the scientific journals from us to learn from. Certainly we can look back at the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1912 to inform our health policy decisions today, without needing to wait for the global COVID-19 pandemic to fully take its course. We can study the migration patterns of the Spanish Flu, the intensity of its multiple waves of infection, how different localities fared, and the policies that led to the various outcomes. For example, knowing that a St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in one city immediately prior to an explosion in confirmed infection cases should inform our decision of whether to hold St. Patrick’s Day parades in cities this year. We do not need the full context of history nor do we need to wait for a current pandemic to play out in order to start making better decisions in the current era.
Certainly we can make mistakes and over-correct if we take the wrong lessons from history. For example, if we look at the history of pandemics and observe a slice of data that show people retreating into suburbs for fear of disease, we may conclude that our urban centers will become deserted and economically doomed. However, a broader study of history with a longer time horizon extending well past pandemic time periods would show that the forces of urbanization come back even stronger and the retreat to suburbs are only temporary. Hence, if a decision was made to invest in suburban development versus urban development, it may have been short-sighted. This demonstrates that even if we believe history can mislead us, digging even deeper may yet reveal even more insights we can use to make decisions today.
On whether elected officials should strictly follow the will of the people or use judgement
In a representative democracy, elected officials are theoretically chosen as a manifestation of the will of the people. However, that does not mean that the will of the people should drive all of their decision making throughout their careers. Government officials need to always be listening to their constituents, but when faced with difficult choices in the course of their day-to-day work, they should rely more on their own judgement instead of blindly following the guidance of the citizenry.
Estimable government officials often have knowledge and experience that the average citizen does not, and this can be leveraged to make wiser decisions. For example, an official who has worked their way up through local and regional governments might be aware of an acute housing shortage caused by overly strict environmental or building codes. Using this knowledge, they can design legislation that tackles this problem by streamlining construction permit approval processes for maximum effectiveness. If such an official were to solely listen to the will of citizens on the ground, they might conclude that a more basic rent control policy is all that is needed, which would be short-sighted given the need to continue incentivizing housing construction.
Furthermore, the citizenry itself can be quite diverse in opinion, and it is often not immediately clear that there is a unified will of the people to follow. For example, one group of concerned citizens might be advocating for rent control legislation while another group may be feel the solution lies in better land use and transit planning. An effective government official is one who can understand all sides of an issue, including any potential negative side-effects of potential policy, and make decisions on how to move forward after balanced consideration. This thoughtful approach is not possible if government officials simply blindly followed the segment of their constituency that shouts the loudest.
Additionally, it’s important to consider that the will of the people can change over time. In fact, most historical progress has been made as societies shift their views on issues over time. Policies on parental leave, gay marriage, and racial justice have all evolved throughout the decades, pushed forward by the will of the people but facilitated by the government officials they elect. In this way, the will of the people through representative democracy has proven effective: as values and stances shift over time, people can vote out and in elected officials that best espouse the views of the current era. Politicians not able to fluidly navigate the shifting tides of the citizenry will not have successful careers, but those that develop this skill will be able to leverage it as they enter office.
In conclusion, the will of the people clearly should not be ignored, but it must act as one factor in a coordinated system that includes responsible and experienced government officials. The officials must accede to their role in interpreting the shifting will of the people, thoughtfully considering the diverse array of viewpoints, and leverage their knowledge to derive the most effective solutions possible.
On whether the success of societies should be measured by the welfare of their people
There are many measures for the success of a society, from economic to psychological to cultural influence. While societies strive to make progress in their goals, however, they should not neglect of the welfare of their people. Given that the ultimate goal of most societies is to simply last as long as possible, the general welfare of the citizenry is the best measure of the well-being of a society.
When looking at measures of overall societal success, we tend to gravitate towards metrics in the aggregate. For example, gross domestic product (GDP) has long been established as the global standard for the economic strength of a nation or society. However, if a society focuses solely on a metric like GDP above all else, significant maladies can start to appear. The relentless drive for capitalistic efficiencies often leads to abuse of the labor force and widening wealth inequality. In turn, this leads to friction between capital and labor, potentially exploding in violence during strikes and protests. The collapse of the working and middle classes would eventually threaten the entire economy as consumer spending craters, and this would ultimately risk the stability of the entire society. Clearly, a singular focus on an aggregate metric of success like GDP undermines the stability of a society overall.
Of course, we must acknowledge that there are times when societal stability does require some collectivism and compromises of well-being. This is most evident during wars, when citizens may be asked or conscripted to join the military, risking their lives for their nation. Here, some citizens need to be put in danger in order to protect the future of the whole society. Without their sacrifice, an outside enemy may cause far more damage and threaten the existence of the society entirely. However, this is usually a temporary situation, and societies that survive wars must in turn invest in the welfare of their people going forward. This can be seen in the G.I. Bill that provided educational opportunities for those veterans of U.S. wars.
The long-term existence of society depends on its people, and hence it is always in their best interest to invest in general welfare. While aggregate metrics show some measure of progress, ultimately the well-being of citizens is the sign of long-term sustainability.
On whether worthy goals should come at all costs
In the pursuit of noble goals, some may believe the ends justify the means. Doing whatever it takes to achieve these goals, they may have a sense that any negative consequences of their actions would be absolved once the worth of their results is clear. However, there are several lines that should rarely be crossed, regardless of how righteous the goals may be.
Breaking rules designed for fairness is one of these lines that should not be crossed. For example, a student might believe they should be able to graduate medical school so they can become a doctor and start saving lives. If they were on the edge of failing a critical course that would prevent them from graduating, they might start developing a sense that cheating on an exam to pass the course is a worthy endeavor. However, there would be several unintended consequences that might follow from that decision. They might raise the curve for the class and thus harm other students that did not decide to cheat, or they might pass the class but not be properly equipped with the knowledge that would have made a life-saving difference in a future surgical operation. Breaking the rules by cheating risks these consequences and thus puts into question the nobility of the student’s decision in the first place.
Another line that should not be crossed relates to violence. If pursuing a goal requires harming others or putting others in danger, it is no longer a worthy goal. For example, if a person decides that the need to feed their family requires taking on a job in a drug cartel where they are asked to occasionally murder people, it becomes debatable whether the actions justify the original goal.
However, there are sometimes exceptions to these rules in extreme circumstances. For example, it can be argued that the disruptive protests that occurred globally as a reaction to the death of George Floyd are a justifiable manifestation of the anger felt regarding systemic racism in the United States. Here, hundreds of years of silence and peaceful demonstrations resulted in no relief for Black people in America, so the moment had arrived when some controlled disruption targeted towards law enforcement institutions was justifiable. Even here, however, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed: a police officer being murdered in retaliation, for example, would be an example of the means overextending past the justification.
When debating contentious actions taken on behalf of so-called worthy goals, the worthiness of the goals themselves should often be questioned. Whose values are being used to evaluate the nobility of the goal? Who benefits from the goal being achieved, and who could be hurt? Only if a society as a whole agrees that potentially negative repercussions of pursuing a goal are worthy, should one proceed in taking on such tendentious actions.