Topics in the following list may appear in your actual test. You should become familiar with this list before you take the GRE-AWA test. Remember that when you take the test you will not have a choice of topics. You must write only on the topic that is assigned to you.
Present your perspective on the issue below, using relevant reasons and/or examples to support your views.
"A nation should require all its students to study the same national curriculum until they enter college rather than allow schools in different parts of the nation to determine which academic courses to offer."
Present your perspective on the issue below, using relevant reasons and/or examples to support your views.
"Governments must ensure that their major cities receive the financial support they need in order to thrive, because it is primarily in cities that a nation's cultural traditions are preserved and generated."
Present your perspective on the issue below, using relevant reasons and/or examples to support your views.
"Although many people think that the luxuries and conveniences of contemporary life are entirely harmless, they in fact, prevent people from developing into truly strong and independent individuals." Do modern luxuries serve to undermine our true strength and independence as individuals?
Present your perspective on the issue below, using relevant reasons and/or examples to support your views.
"Most cultures encourage individuals to sacrifice a large part of their own personalities in order to be like other people. Thus, most people are afraid to think or behave differently because they do not want to be excluded."
Do we learn more from people whose ideas we share in common than from those whose ideas contradict ours? The speaker claims so, for the reason that disagreement can cause stress and inhibit learning. I concede that undue discord can impede learning. Otherwise, in my view we learn far more from discourse and debate with those whose ideas we oppose than from people whose ideas are in accord with our own.
Admittedly, under some circumstances disagreement with others can be counterproductive to learning. For supporting examples one need look no further than a television set. On today's typical television or radio talk show, disagreement usually manifests itself in meaningless rhetorical bouts and shouting matches, during which opponents vie to have their own message heard, but have little interest either in finding common ground with or in acknowledging the merits of the opponent's viewpoint. Understandably, neither the combatants nor the viewers learn anything meaningful. In fact, these battles only serve to reinforce the predispositions and biases of all concerned. The end result is that learning is impeded.
Disagreement can also inhibit learning when two opponents disagree on fundamental assumptions needed for meaningful discourse and debate. For example, a student of palaeontology learns little about the evolution of an animal species under current study by debating with an individual whose religious belief system precludes the possibility of evolution to begin with. And, economics and finance students learn little about the dynamics of a laissez-faire system by debating with a socialist whose view is that a centralized power should control all economic activity.
Aside from the foregoing two provisos, however, I fundamentally disagree with the speaker's claim. Assuming common ground between two rational and reasonable opponents willing to debate on intellectual merits, both opponents stand to gain much from that debate. Indeed it is primarily through such debate that human knowledge advances, whether at the personal, community, or global level.
At the personal level, by listening to their parents' rationale for their seemingly oppressive rules and policies teenagers can learn how certain behaviours naturally carry certain undesirable consequences. At the same time, by listening to their teenagers concerns about autonomy and about peer pressures parents can learn the valuable lesson that effective parenting and control are two different things. At the community level, through dispassionate dialogue an environmental activist can come to understand the legitimate economic concerns of those whose jobs depend on the continued profitable operation of a factory. Conversely, the latter might stand to learn much about the potential public health price to be paid by ensuring job growth and a low unemployment rate. Finally, at the global level, two nations with opposing political or economic interests can reach mutually beneficial agreements by striving to understand the other's legitimate concerns for its national security, its political sovereignty, the stability of its economy and currency, and so forth.
In sum, unless two opponents in a debate are each willing to play on the same field and by the same rules, I concede that disagreement can impede learning. Otherwise, reasoned discourse and debate between people with opposing viewpoints is the very foundation upon which human knowledge advances. Accordingly, on balance the speaker is fundamentally correct.
I strongly agree with the assertion that significant advances in knowledge require expertise from various fields. The world around us presents a seamless web of physical and anthropogenic forces, which interact in ways that can be understood only in the context of a variety of disciplines. Two examples that aptly illustrate this point involve the fields of cultural anthropology and astronomy.
Consider how a cultural anthropologist's knowledge about an ancient civilization is enhanced not only by the expertise of the archaeologist who unearths the evidence but ultimately by the expertise of biochemists, geologists, linguists, and even astronomers. By analysing the hair, nails, blood and bones of mummified bodies, biochemists and forensic scientists can determine the life expectancy, general well-being, and common causes of death of the population. These experts can also ensure the proper preservation of evidence found at the archaeological site. A geologist can help identify the source and age of the materials used for tools, weapons, and structures thereby enabling the anthropologist to extrapolate about the civilization's economy, trades and work habits, life styles, extent of travel and mobility, and so forth. Linguists are needed to interpret hieroglyphics and extrapolate from found fragments of writings. And an astronomer can help explain the layout of an ancient city as well as the design, structure and position of monuments, tombs, and temples since ancients often looked to the stars for guidance in building cities and structures.
An even more striking example of how expertise in diverse fields is needed to advance knowledge involves the area of astronomy and space exploration. Significant advancements in our knowledge of the solar system and the universe require increasingly keen tools for observation and measurement. Telescope technology and the measurement of celestial distances, masses, volumes, and so forth, are the domain of astrophysicists.
These advances also require increasingly sophisticated means of exploration. Manned and unmanned exploratory probes are designed by mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers. And to build and enable these technologies requires the acumen and savvy of business leaders, managers, and politicians. Even diplomats might play a role insofar as major space projects require international cooperative efforts among the world's scientists and governments. And ultimately it is our philosophers whose expertise helps provide meaning to what we learn about our universe.
In sum, no area of intellectual inquiry operates in a vacuum. Because the sciences are inextricably related, to advance our knowledge in any one area we must understand the interplay among them all. Moreover, it is our non-scientists who make possible the science, and who bring meaning to what we learn from it.
The speaker would prefer a national curriculum for all children up until college instead of allowing schools in different regions the freedom to decide on their own curricula. I agree insofar as some common core curriculum would serve useful purposes for any nation. At the same time, however, individual states and communities should have some freedom to augment any such curriculum as they see fit; otherwise, a nation's educational system might defeat its own purposes in the long term.
A national core curriculum would be beneficial to a nation in a number of respects. First of all, by providing all children with fundamental skills and knowledge, a common core curriculum would help ensure that our children grow up to become reasonably informed, productive members of society. In addition, a common core curriculum would provide a predictable foundation upon which college administrators and faculty could more easily build curricula and select course materials for freshmen that are neither below nor above their level of educational experience. Finally, a core curriculum would ensure that all school-children are taught core values upon which any democratic society depends to thrive, and even survive-values such as tolerance of others with different viewpoints, and respect for others.
However, a common curriculum that is also an exdusive one would pose certain problems, which might outweigh the benefits, noted above. First of all, on what basis would certain course work be included or excluded, and who would be the final decision- maker? In all likelihood these decisions would be in the hands of federal legislators and regulators, who are likely to have their own quirky notions of what should and should not be taught to children notions that may or may not reflect those of most communities, schools, or parents. Besides, government officials are notoriously susceptible to influence-peddling by lobbyists who do not have the best interests of society's children in mind.
Secondly, an official, federally sanctioned curriculum would facilitate the dissemination of propaganda and other dogma which because of its biased and one-sided nature undermines the very purpose of true education is to enlighten. I can easily foresee the banning of certain text books, programs, and websites which provide information and perspectives that the government might wish to suppress some sort of threat to its authority and power. Although this scenario might seem far-fetched, this sort of concerns are being raised already at the state level.
Thirdly, the inflexible nature of a uniform national curriculum would preclude the inclusion of programs, courses, and materials that are primarily of regional or local significance. For example, California requires children at certain grade levels to learn about the history of particular ethnic groups who make up the state's diverse population. A national curriculum will not allow this feature, and California's youngsters would be worse off as a result of their ignorance about the traditions, values, and cultural contributions of all the people whose citizenship they share.
Finally, it seems to me that imposing a uniform national curriculum would serve to undermine the authority of parents over their own children, to even a greater extent than uniform state laws currently do. Admittedly, laws requiring parents to ensure that their children receive an education that meets certain minimum standards are well-justified, for the reasons mentioned earlier. However, when such standards are imposed by the state rather than at the community level parents are left with far less power to participate meaningfully in the decision-making process. This problem would only be exacerbated were these decisions left exclusively to federal regulators.
In the final analysis, homogenization of elementary and secondary education would amount to a double-edged sword. While it would serve as an insurance policy against a future populated with illiterates and ignoramuses, at the same time it might serve to obliterate cultural diversity and tradition. The optimal federal approach, in my view, is a balanced one that imposes a basic curriculum yet leaves the rest up to each state or better yet, to each community.
According to the speaker, the video recording is a more important means of document has contemporary life than a written record because video recordings are more accurate and convincing. Although I agree that a video provides a more objective and accurate record of an event's spatial aspects, there is far more to documenting a life than what we see and hear. Thus the speaker overstates the comparative significance of video as a documentary tool.
For the purpose of documenting temporal, spatial events and experiences, I agree that a video record is usually more accurate and more convincing than a written record. It is impossible for anyone, no matter how keen an observer and skilled a journalist, to recount a complete and objective detail such events as the winning touchdown at the Super Bowl, a Balanchine ballet, the Tournament of Roses Parade, or the scene at the intersection of Florence and Normandy streets during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Yet these are important events in contemporary life the sort of events we might put a time capsule for the purpose of capturing our life and times at the turn of this millennium.
The growing documentary role of video is not limited to seminal events like those described above. Video surveillance cameras are objective witnesses with perfect memories. Thus they can play a vital evidentiary role in legal proceedings such as those involving robbery, drug trafficking, police misconduct, motor vehicle violations, and even malpractice in a hospital operating room. Indeed, whenever moving images are central to an event the video camera is superior to the written word. A written description of a hurricane, tornado, or volcanic eruption cannot convey its immediate power and awesome nature like a video record. A diary entry cannot "replay" that wedding reception, dance recital, or surprise birthday party as accurately or objectively as a video record. And a real estate brochure cannot inform about the lighting, spaciousness, or general ambiance of a featured property nearly as effectively as a video. Nonetheless, for certain other purposes written records are advantageous to and more appropriate than video records. For example, certain legal matters are best left to written documentation: video is of no practical use in documenting the terms of a complex contractual agreement, an incorporation, or the establishment of a trust. And video is of little use when it comes to documenting a person's subjective state of mind, impressions, or reflections of an event or experience. Indeed, to the extent that personal interpretation adds dimension and richness to the record, written documentation is actually more important than video.
Finally, a video record is of no use in documenting statistical or other quantitative information. Returning to the riot example mentioned earlier, imagine relying on a video to document the financial loss to store owners, the number of police and fire fighters involved, and so forth. Complete and accurate video documentation of such information would require video cameras at every street corner and in every aisle of every store.
In sum, the speaker's claim overstates the importance of video records, at least to some extent. When it comes to capturing, storing, and recalling temporal, spatial events, video records are inherently more objective, accurate, and complete. However, what we view through a camera lens provides only one dimension of our life and times; written documentation will always be needed to quantify, demystify, and provide meaning to the world around us.
I agree with the speaker that it is sometimes necessary, and even desirable, for political leaders to withhold information from the public. A contrary view would reveal a naive about the inherent nature of public politics, and about the sorts of compromises on the part of well-intentioned political leaders necessary in order to further the public's ultimate interests. Nevertheless, we must not allow our political leaders undue freedom to with-hold information, otherwise, we risk sanctioning demagoguery and undermining the philosophical underpinnings of any democratic society.
One reason for my fundamental agreement with the speaker is that in order to gain the opportunity for effective public leadership, a would-be leader must first gain and maintain political power. In the game of politics, complete forthrightness is a sign of vulnerability and naivete, neither of which earn a politician respect among his or her opponents, and which those opponents will use to every advantage to defeat the politician. In my observation some measure of pandering to the electorate is necessary to gain and maintain political leadership. For example, were all politicians to fully disclose every personal foibles, character flaw, and detail concerning personal life, few honest politicians would ever be elected. While this view might seem cynical, personal scandals have in fact proven the undoing of many a political career; thus I think this view is realistic.
Another reason why I essentially agree with the speaker is that fully disclosing to the public certain types of information would threaten public safety and perhaps even national security. For example, if the President were to disclose the government's strategies for thwarting specific plans of an international terrorist or a drug trafficker, those strategies would surely fail, and the public's health and safety would be compromised as a result. Withholding information might also be necessary to avoid public panic. While such cases are rare, they do occur occasionally. For example, during the first few hours of the new millennium the U.S.
Pentagon's missile defence system experienced a Y2K- related malfunction. This fact was withheld from the public until later in the day, once the problem had been solved; and legitimately so, since immediate disclosure would have served no useful purpose and might even have resulted in mass hysteria.
Having recognized that withholding information from the public is often necessary to serve the interests of that public, legitimate political leadership nevertheless requires forthrightness with the citizenry as to the leader's motives and agenda. History informs us that would-be leaders who lack such forthrightness are the same ones who seize and maintain power either by brute force or by demagoguery-that is, by deceiving and manipulating the citizenry. Paragons such as Genghis Khan and Hitler, respectively, come immediately to mind.
Any democratic society should of course abhor demagoguery, which operates against the democratic principle of government by the people. Consider also less egregious examples, such as President Nixon's withholding of information about his active role in the Watergate cover-up. His behaviour demonstrated a concern for self interest above the broader interests of the democratic system that granted his political authority in the first place.
In sum, the game of politics calls for a certain amount of disingenuousness and lack of forthrightness that we might otherwise characterize as dishonesty. And such behaviour is a necessary means to the final objective of effective political leadership. Nevertheless, in any democracy a leader who relies chiefly on deception and secrecy to preserve that leadership, to advance a private agenda, or to conceal selfish motives, betrays the democracy-and ends up forfeiting the political game.
The speaker's claim is actually threefold: (1) ensuring the survival of large cities and, in turn, that of cultural traditions, is a proper function of government; (2) government support is needed for our large dries and cultural traditions to survive and thrive; and (3) cultural traditions are preserved and generated primarily in our large cities. I strongly disagree with all three claims. First of all, subsidizing cultural traditions is not a proper role for the government. Admittedly, certain objectives, such as public health and safety, are so essential to the survival of large dries and of nations that government has a duty to ensure that they are met. However, these objectives should not extend tenuously to preserving cultural traditions. Moreover, government cannot possibly play an even handed role as cultural patron. Inadequate resources call for restrictions, priorities, and choices. It is unconscionable to relegate normative decisions as to which cities or cultural traditions are more deserving, valuable, or needy to a few legislators, whose notions about culture might be misguided or unrepresentative of those of the general populace. Also, legislators are all too likely to make choices in favour of the cultural agendas of their home towns and states, or of lobbyists with the most money and influence.
Secondly, subsidizing cultural traditions is not a necessary role of government. A lack of private funding might justify an exception. However, culture by which I chiefly mean the fine arts has always depended primarily on the patronage of private individuals and businesses, and not on the government. The Medicis, a powerful banking family of Renaissance Italy, supported artists Michelangelo and Raphael. During the 20th Century the primary source of cultural support were private foundations established by industrial magnates Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller and Getty. And tomorrow cultural support will come from our new technology and media moguls including the likes of Ted Turner and Bill Gates. In short, philanthropy is alive and well today, and so government need not intervene to ensure that our cultural traditions are preserved and promoted.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the speaker unfairly suggests that large cities serve as the primary breeding ground and sanctuaries for a nation's cultural traditions. Today a nation's distinct cultural traditions its folk art, crafts, traditional songs, customs and ceremonies burgeon instead in small towns and rural regions. Admittedly, our cities do serve as our centres for "high art"; big cities are where we deposit, display, and boast of the world's pre-eminent art, architecture, and music. But big-city culture has little to do any- more with one nation's distinct cultural traditions. After all, modern cities are essentially multicultural stew pots; accordingly, by assisting large cities a government is actually helping to create a global culture as well to subsidize the traditions of other nations' cultures.
In the final analysis, the government cannot philosophically justify assisting large cities for the purpose of either promoting or preserving the nation's cultural traditions; nor is government assistance necessary toward these ends. Moreover, assisting large cities would have little bearing on our distinct cultural traditions, which abide elsewhere.
I agree that it would serve the interests of all nations to establish a global university for the purpose of solving the world's most persistent social problems. Nevertheless, such a university poses certain risks which all participating nations must be careful to minimize risk defeating the university's purpose.
One compelling argument in favour of a global university has to do with the fact that its faculty and students would bring diverse cultural and educational perspectives to the problems they seek to solve. It seems to me that nations can only benefit from a global university where students learn ways in which other nations address certain problems successfully or not. It might be tempting to think that an overly diversified academic community would impede communication among students and faculty. However, in my view any such concerns are unwarranted, especially considering the growing awareness of other peoples and cultures which the mass media, and especially the Internet, have created. Moreover, many basic principles used to solve enduring social problems know no national boundaries; thus a useful insight or discovery can come from a researcher or student from any nation.
Another compel ling argument for a global university involves the increasingly global nature of certain problems. Consider, for instance, the depletion of atmospheric ozone, which has waned the Earth to the point that it threatens the very survival of the human species. Also, we are now learning that clear cutting the world's rainforests can set into motion a chain of animal extinction that threatens the delicate balance upon which all animals including humans-depend. Also consider that a financial crisis or a political crisis or natural disaster in one country can spell trouble for foreign companies, many of which are now multinational in that they rely on the labour forces, equipment, and raw materials of other nations.
Environmental, economic, and political problems such as these all carry grave social consequences increased crime, unemployment, insurrection, hunger, and so forth. Solving these problems requires global cooperation which a global university can facilitate. Notwithstanding the foregoing reasons why a global university would help solve many of our most pressing social problems, the establishment of such a university poses certain problems of its own which must be addressed in order that the university can achieve its objectives. First, participant nations would need to overcome a myriad of administrative and political impediments. All nations would need to agree on which problems demand the university's attention and resources, which areas of academic research are worthwhile, as well as agreeing on policies and procedures for making, enforcing, and amending these decisions. Query whether a functional global university is politically feasible, given that sovereign nations naturally wish to advance their own agendas.
A second problem inherent in establishing a global university involves the risk that certain intellectual and research avenues would become officially sanctioned while others of equal or greater potential value would be discouraged, or perhaps even proscribed. A telling example of the inherent danger of setting and enforcing official research priorities involves the Soviet government's attempts during the 1920s to not only control the direction and the goals of its scientists' research but also to distort the outcome of that research ostensibly for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. Not surprisingly, during this time period no significant scientific advances occurred under the auspices of the Soviet government. The Soviet lesson provides an important caveat to administrators of a global university: Significant progress in solving pressing social problems requires an open mind to all sound ideas, approaches, and theories respective of the ideologies of their proponents.
A final problem with a global university is that the world's preeminent intellectual talent might be drawn to the sorts of problems to which the university is charged with solving, while parochial social problem go unsolved. While this is not reason enough not to establish a global university, it nevertheless is a concern that university administrators and participant nations must be aware of in allocating resources and intellectual talent.
To sum up, given the increasingly global nature or the world's social problems, and the escalating costs of addressing these problems, a global university makes good sense. And, since all nations would have a common interest in seeing this endeavor succeed, my intuition is that participating nations would be able to overcome whatever procedural and political obstacles that might stand in the way of success. As long as each nation is careful not to neglect its own unique social problems, and as long as the university's administrators are careful to remain open-minded about the legitimacy and potential value of various avenues of intellectual inquiry and research, a global university might go along way toward solving many of the world's pressing social problems.
The speaker asserts that governments of countries where lesser-known languages are spoken should intervene to prevent these languages from becoming extinct. I agree inso far as a country's indigenous and distinct languages should not be abandoned and forgotten altogether. At some point, however, I think cultural identity should yield to the more practical considerations of day-to-day life in a global society.
On the one hand, the indigenous language of any geographical region is part-and-parcel of the cultural heritage of the region's natives. In my observation we humans have a basic psychological need for individual identity, which we define by way of our membership in distinct cultural groups. A culture defines itself in various ways-by its unique traditions, rituals, mores, attitudes and beliefs, but especially language. Therefore, when a people's language becomes extinct the result is a diminished sense of pride, dignity, and self worth.
One need look no further than continental Europe to observe how people cling tenaciously to their distinct languages, despite the fact that there is no practical need for them anymore. And on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the French Canadians stubbornly insist on French as their official language, for the sole purpose of preserving their distinct cultural heritage.
Even where no distinct language exists, people will invent one to gain a sense of cultural identity, as the emergence of the distinct Ebonic cant among today's African Americans aptly illustrates. In short, people resist language assimilation because of a basic human need to be part of a distinct cultural group.
Another important reason to prevent the extinction of a language is to preserve the distinct ideas that only that particular language can convey. Certain Native American and Oriental languages, for instance, contain words symbolizing spiritual and other abstract concepts that only these cultures embrace. Thus, in some cases to lose a language would be to abandon cherished beliefs and ideas that can be conveyed only through language.
On the other hand, in today's high-tech world of satellite communications, global mobility, and especially the Internet, language barriers serve primarily to impede cross-cultural communication, which in turn impedes international commerce and trade. Moreover, language barriers naturally breed misunderstanding, a certain distrust and, as a result, discord and even war among nations. Moreover, in my view the extinction of all but a few major languages is inexorable as supported by the fact that the Internet has adopted English as its official language. Thus by intervening to preserve a dying language a government might be deploying its resources to fight a losing battle, rather than to combat more pressing social problems such as hunger, homelessness, disease and ignorance that plague nearly every society today.
In sum, preserving indigenous languages is, admittedly, a worthy goal; maintaining its own distinct language affords a people a sense of pride, dignity and self-worth. Moreover, by preserving languages we honour a people's heritage, enhance our understanding of history, and preserve certain ideas that only some languages properly convey. Nevertheless, the economic and political drawbacks of language barriers outweigh the benefits of preserving a dying language. In the final analysis, government should devote its time and resources elsewhere, and leave it to the people themselves to take whatever steps are needed to preserve their own distinct languages.
The speaker believes so, and I tend to agree. Consider the automobile, for example. Most people consider the automobile a necessity rather than a luxury; yet it is for this very reason that the automobile so aptly supports the speaker's point. To the extent that we depend on cars as crutches, they prevent us from becoming truly independent and strong in character as individuals.
Consider first the effect of the automobile on our independence as individuals. In some respects the automobile serves to enhance such independence. For example, cars make it possible for people in isolated and depressed areas without public transportation to become more independent by pursing gainful employment outside their communities. And teenagers discover that owning a car, or even borrowing one on occasion, affords them a needed sense of independence from their parents.
However, cars have diminished our independence in a number of more significant respects. We've grown dependent on our cars for commuting to work. We rely on them like crutches for short trips to the corner store, and for carting our children to and from school. Moreover, the car has become a means not only to our assorted physical destinations but also to the attainment of our socioeconomic goals, insofar as the automobile has become a symbol of status. In fact, in my observation many, if not most, working professionals willingly undermine their financial security for the sake of being seen driving this year's new SUV or luxury sedan.
In short, we've become slaves to the automobile.
Consider next the overall impact of the automobile on our strength as individuals, by which I mean strength of character, or mettle. I would be hard-pressed to list one way in which the automobile enhances one's strength of character. Driving a powerful SUV might afford a person a feeling and appearance of strength, or machismo. But this feeling has nothing to do with a person's true character.
In contrast, there is a certain strength of character that comes with eschewing modern conveniences such as cars, and with the knowledge that one is contributing to a cleaner and quieter environment, a safer neighbourhood, and arguably a more genteel society. Also, alternative modes of transportation such as bicycling and walking are forms of exercise which require and promote the virtue of self-discipline. Finally, in my observation people who have forsaken the automobile spend more time at home, where they are more inclined to prepare and even grow their own food, and to spend more time with their families. The former enhances one's independence; the latter enhances the integrity of one's values and the strength of one's family.
To sum up, the automobile helps illustrate that when a luxury becomes a necessity it can sap our independence and strength as individuals. Perhaps our society is better off, on balance, with such "luxuries"; after all, the automobile industry has created countless jobs, raised our standard of living, and made the world more interesting. However, by becoming slaves to the automobile we trade off a certain independence and inner strength.
The speaker claims that most cultures encourage conformity at the expense of individuality, and as a result most people conform for fear of being excluded. While I find the second prong of this dual claim well supported overall by empirical evidence, I take exception with the first prong; aside from the cultures created by certain oppressive political regimes, no culture need "encourage" its members to conform to prevailing ways of thought and behaviour; in fact, all the evidence shows that cultures attempt to do just the opposite.
As a threshold matter, it is necessary to distinguish between conformity that an oppressive ruling state imposes on its own culture and conformity in a free democratic society. In the former case, people are not only encouraged but actually coerced into suppressing individual personality; and indeed these people are afraid to think and behave differently but not for fear of being excluded but rather for fear of punishment and persecution by the state. The modern Communist and Fascist regimes are fitting examples. With respect to free democratic societies, it might be tempting to dismiss the speaker's dual claim out of hand. After all, true democratic states are predicated on individual freedoms of choice, speech, expression, religion, and so forth. Ostensibly, these freedoms serve to promote individuality, even non-conformity, in our personas, our lifestyles, and our opinions and attitudes.
Yet, one look at any democratic society reveals a high degree of conformity among its members. Every society has its own bundle of values, customs, and mores which most of its members share. Admittedly, within any culture springs up various subcultures which try to distinguish themselves by their own distinct values, customs, and mores. In the U.S., for instance, African-Americans have developed a distinct dialect, known as Ebonics, and a distinct body language and attitude which affords them a strong sub-cultural identity of their own. Yet, the undeniable fact is that humans, given the actual freedom to either conform or not conform, choose to think and behave in ways similar to most people in their social group however we define that group.
Nor is there much empirical evidence of any cultural agenda, either overt or covert, to encourage conformity in thought and behaviour among the members of any culture. To the contrary, the predominant message in most cultures is that people should cultivate their individuality. Consider, for example, the enduring and nearly ubiquitous icon of the ragged individualist, who charts his or her own course, bucks the trend, and achieves notoriety through individual creativity, imagination, invention, or entrepreneurship. Even our systems of higher education seem to encourage individualism by promoting and cultivating critical and independent thought among its students.
Yet, all the support for forging one's unique persona, career, lifestyle, opinions, and even belief system, turns out to be hype. In the final analysis, most people choose to conform. And understandably so; after all, it is human nature to distrust, and even shun, others who are too different from us. Thus to embrace rugged individualism is to risk becoming an outcast, the natural consequence of which is to limit one's socioeconomic and career opportunities. This prospect suffices to quell our yearning to be different; thus the speaker is correct that most of us resign ourselves to conformity for fear of being left behind by our peers. Admittedly, few cultures are without rugged individualists the exceptional artists, inventors, explorers, social reformers, and entrepreneurs who embrace their autonomy of thought and behaviour, then test their limits. And paradoxically, it is the achievements of these notable non-conformists that are responsible for most cultural evolution and progress. Yet such notables are few and far between in what is otherwise a world of insecure, even fearful, cultural conformists.
To sum up, the speaker is correct that most people choose to conform rather than behave and think in ways that run contrary to their culture's norms, and that fear of being excluded lies at the heart of this choice. Yet, no culture need encourage conformity; most humans recognize that there is safety of numbers, and as a result freely choose conformity over the risks, and potential rewards, of non-conformity.