Insights from the 2013 A Level General Paper Essay Questions

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Some key takeaways

  • This year begins a series of why we should care about local versus international issues (it shows up again in 2014).
  • There are almost certainly two questions on “your country”, and we can use that to our advantage – we’re almost certain to encounter some of these issues in daily life, and preparing for these questions helps us with the AQ as well.
  • We see the return of the “Math” and “Language” questions, which tie into subjects taught in schools but here we’re required to think of these subjects in a slightly more philosophical way.
  • There is less of an explicit focus on the issue of inequality compared to the 2012 edition, but it’s still there.

Here are the questions, with quick hitting commentary…

  1. “The world would be a better place if more political leaders were women.” What is your view?
  1. “Unlike the Arts, such as writing or music, Mathematics lacks the capacity for creativity.” How far do you agree with this statement?
  1. Is there any point in trying to predict future trends?
  1. To what extent is it possible to “make the punishment fit the crime”?
  1. Discuss the claim that in the modern world people should care more about international than national issues.
  1. How important is it to save plant and animal species which are in danger of extinction?
  1. “Scientific research into health and diet is unreliable as it so often contradicts itself.” Is this a fair comment?
  1. How far is increased prosperity for all a realistic goal in your society?
  1. Consider the view that spoken language is more important than the written form.
  1. Why should we be concerned with current affairs when most of them will soon be forgotten?
  1. “Education should only be concerned with what is useful in life.” Discuss.
  1. How far, in your society, should unpopular views be open to discussion?

1. “The world would be a better place if more political leaders were women.” What is your view?

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a veritable minefield of issues…

It’s no secret that women remain underrepresented in political and commercial leadership around the world (more so in some countries and occupations than others). The difficulty is in finding illustrative examples for a meaningful discussion…

How many women political leaders can you name?   You’ll need that not just to impress the examiners with your general knowledge, but also to contemplate the track records of these leaders and attempt to compare their countries’ prospects and outcomes before, during and after their terms in office. For a completely non-exhaustive list, consider Julia Gillard (AUS), Helen Clark (NZ), Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Margaret Thatcher (UK), Christine Lagarde (former French finance minister, now head of the IMF), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright (all recent US Secretaries of State).

We should try to assess how the world might be different and better (or worse, or the same) if more political leaders were women. We might consider the political, social and economic outcomes, and compare them to problems we face today.

Would the political systems in most countries be less fractious and more collaborative? How would we attempt to demonstrate this?

Would there be greater social inclusion of minorities and hitherto neglected groups? We’d expect that women’s issues should get more attention. Would there be a neglect of men’s issues, i.e. an inversion of the current state?

If more women political leaders led to greater diversity in the leadership and the consideration of a broader set of viewpoints, studies of team dynamics suggest this might be a good thing, as work is increasingly interdisciplinary and a diverse team begets more fertile ideas.

We might also attempt to give a scorecard to current political systems, to see if the men have been doing such a bad job. In some cases, the answer is most likely yes. In others, such as in Scandinavian countries with generous maternity and paternity leave benefits, perhaps it matters just a little less whether more men or more women are in charge.

2. “Unlike the Arts, such as writing or music, Mathematics lacks the capacity for creativity.” How far do you agree with this statement?

Strangely enough, one fairly predictable trend is Cambridge’s fondness for the “usefulness of Math” question type. And it’s actually a pretty interesting question type, because just about everyone has to do Math (in some form) for A levels.

For some background, check out:

  • “The Drunkard’s Walk” by Leonard Mlodinow
  • “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk” by Peter L. Bernstein
  • Oxford Professor Peter Donnelly’s TED talk on how juries can get fooled by statistics

You might also examine whether that assumption about writing and music always being creative is true! For writing, it’s difficult enough when authors consciously try to be creative. When it comes to some forms of writing like, dare I say it, university academic papers, it can sometimes be really, really challenging to see the rhetorical creativity in it.

And as for music, well, check out these two videos from Rob Paravonian and Axis of Awesome that quite aptly enlighten us on the limited set of permutations underlying some of humanity’s best known jingles… 🙂

3. Is there any point in trying to predict future trends?

What might motivate us to want to predict the future? Overcoming uncertainty, which people find hard to live with? Trying to “cover the bases” and make plans for lean times? Indulging our capacity for imagination and our personal technology wishlist (flying cars!)? Trying to establish expertise for the sake of self-promotion?

We can certainly see the usefulness of trying to gauge the future with weather forecasting, political punditry, and strategic planning by corporations and armies.

With that said, we need to also weigh the relative futility and inaccuracy of “experts”, for example the many economists who failed to foresee the 2008 global financial crisis.

An excellent (if lengthy) read on this topic is Nate Silver’s “The Signal and The Noise”.

And perhaps if only for entertainment, there is the thrill for some of drawing parallels between major contemporary events and vague sayings by ancient seers like Nostradamus, yielding a strange sense of satisfaction that someone “knew all along”.

4. To what extent is it possible to “make the punishment fit the crime”?

Ooh, crime and ethics… the long (multi, multi-year) wait is over for some (departments) that have pined for this question and prepared exhaustively for it to match.

To begin with, we might consider if punishments currently already fit certain crimes. For example, offering parole to reformed convicts and having a different set of rules and punishments for juvenile offenders might be considered “fitting”.

We probably can’t avoid discussions of the death penalty, and its appropriateness, though acceptance of capital punishment tends to vary by country and culture.

There is the problem of new types of crimes that might come up, for example with cyber crime or some types of white collar crimes, where the law may have some catching up to do, and so the difficulty in making the punishment fit the crime stems more from the “novelty” of the crime.

And of course our penal codes and standards of punishment have evolved over time, but not uniformly across countries.

Additional Reading: “Reefer Nation” by Eric Schlosser and Steven Pinker’s TED talk on The Myth of Violence

5. Discuss the claim that in the modern world people should care more about international than national issues.

This was a surprisingly good one for some of our students. There is a wide range of political, social and economic issues we can draw from to think about the local vs international divide.

One challenge is determining the issues that are purely (or at least mostly) local. When we think about global challenges, things like poverty, the environment, the economy and national security are often touched by international developments, regardless of the country one lives in. For example, countries that had little to do with global housing bubbles nonetheless felt the pain of recession when their trade partners’ economies nosedived, and this could translate to job losses and family pains at home.

Avoid being tautological and claiming that all issues are international issues, hence we should care about those and not “local” issues. That doesn’t leave room for argument.

What issues are there that remain local in this highly connected world? Maybe you live on an isolated island nation (though even then global warming is your concern)? There are still municipal issues relating to things like crime, housing, healthcare and education that might be more pressing day-to-day than significant world events that feel “distant”. A common piece of political advice for contestants goes, “it’s the economy, stupid”, suggesting that bread and butter issues, which can be highly local or at least perceived to be that way, are paramount.

6. How important is it to save plant and animal species which are in danger of extinction?

via GIPHY

Does planet earth miss the Dodo? How about the dinosaurs (young boys aside)? What is it we seek to preserve beyond novelty when we work to save endangered species?

Biodiversity is important but we will need some case studies on why this is so. Somewhere in the argument we should consider the tradeoff between letting natural selection take its course and preserving the existing balance.

Consider also the stories of Australia’s periodic challenges with its rabbit population due to the removal of natural predators. This isn’t a global extinction story, but if any of the animal species that were in danger of extinction played a crucial role in the ecological balance, there might be even greater justification for saving them.

Interesting further reading: Find out more about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway and read about the history of varieties of the banana.

Think about this Jonas Salk quote: “If all insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.”

7. “Scientific research into health and diet is unreliable as it so often contradicts itself.” Is this a fair comment?

“Health” and “Diet” do overlap but they are pretty broad categories on their own. We should consider whether there are general “truths” about health and diet that scientific research has produced.

The extent of the contradiction might matter too. If the previous recommendation was to consume up to 8 glasses of water a day and now it’s been changed to 6 glasses, the contradiction, if there is one at all, is probably not so severe as to render the general advice unreliable. A similar reasoning might apply to things like exercise – there are refinements to the types of exercise and techniques recommended but science hasn’t turned around and said that exercise is bad. Science also helps top athletes push the boundaries of world record achievement.

Problems like fads in dieting trends and the influence of corporate money in research may conspire to give science a bad reputation, as may reports of rogue scientists fabricating results. That doesn’t make the true research itself contradictory and unreliable. It might be more an indication of how hard it is to find credible information.

New technologies may improve our investigative methods and force us to re-examine past conclusions. Think about what DNA testing did for forensic science. It doesn’t necessarily make everything that came before it unreliable.

8. How far is increased prosperity for all a realistic goal in your society?

One of the almost guaranteed two “your society” questions for each year. And also a continuation of the “inequality” theme from the 2012 edition.

Note that this isn’t a question on whether we should help the poor in our society and also has little to do with morality. It’s more about feasibility. And while “prosperity” could go beyond money and a pay cheque to include access to valuable public services, we should still focus primarily on material / monetary prosperity.

We might consider how realistic it is to try to lift the incomes of all people. For one, in terms of economics, if literally everyone in the country had increased prosperity and more money, things would get more expensive and a portion of folks would still get left behind (i.e. inflation). If we attempted this only through more redistribution, say through taxes, it’s questionable how lasting the effect would be.

Some obstacles to “increased prosperity for all” might also include the continuing divide between blue collar and white collar work, and the role of technology in “hollowing out” the middle jobs and income groups, as automation and outsourcing replace previously secure jobs. There is a place to consider how sound it is to leave things to the free market and raw capitalism and trust that things will work themselves out through “trickle down economics”. Intergenerational endowments of family connections, wealth and knowledge and the drive of self-interest may also leave us with a richer nation but persistently uneven distribution of opportunities and outcomes.

From a Singapore perspective, this was once much more readily achievable as we started out in a less developed state. But once the “easy wins” have been accomplished and we have become one of the wealthier countries around, the push to become marginally more prosperous while sharing the fruits evenly becomes more challenging. The world awaits an answer but with such a lofty goal, the recent signs might not be the most promising.

9. Consider the view that spoken language is more important than the written form.

Would anyone visiting this site take on this question? 🙂

How do we assess importance here? Is it by the number of people who use each form? For example, some might be illiterate and hence not make use of the written form but most who know a language at all can speak it. Is it in economic terms, where we weight the relative viability of print and audiobooks or publishing in general versus music? Is it in terms of politics or the law, where treaties and contracts ultimately have to be put down to and agreed upon in writing?

There are certain oral traditions that are passed down in spoken form. These might be old wives’ tales or conventional wisdom, or family legacies. Think about the relative strengths of each. Are there things better appreciated in the spoken form? Say, the lyrics of songs or the sounds of poems.

Some of this might hinge on how individuals prefer to digest information. This parallels one model of the different types of learners – Visual, Audial, Kinesthetic.

If the language and the culture it sustains are to persist, we might need a written record, especially if most speakers of the language die out. An interesting contemporary example is Latin. While Latin might still be spoken in ceremony (for example in the Catholic church), we could argue it lives on more in the written form, partly as an ancestor language for some of today’s modern languages, and partly in written record from ancient archives.

While it’s not necessarily a good idea to go straight for the “they’re both important, they complement each other” argument, you can certainly make your way there, demonstrating how we’d be worse off without either form, and how the process of communicating and appreciating ideas often involves both.

10. Why should we be concerned with current affairs when most of them will soon be forgotten?

Of what use are current affairs to begin with? If we’re not politics and information junkies, why should we pay attention? Perhaps these current affairs can directly impact our lives, even if they feel distant right now. This parallels some of the possible arguments for question 5. Perhaps, in order to live life to the fullest, we should take every opportunity to be aware of the things around us, since even life itself can pass in a relatively fleeting period of time.

Strangely enough, given the wording, the stand for this question practically writes itself. Something along the lines of:

“While the sheer number of current events can be overwhelming and hard to keep track of, we need to stay abreast of developments due to [the following reasons]”. There isn’t really room for us to disagree or say that actually it’s ok for the most part to ignore current events.

A challenge for us is to tell which current affairs issues are the significant ones, to separate the wheat from the chaff. When we examine past crises and turmoil, we tend to wonder why people of the past could not see the problems unfolding right before their eyes (Hindsight is said to be 20-20). Perhaps they were too caught up in the day-to-day, or they too suffered from a state of ignorant bliss, or when they cared to pay attention, from information overload.

And even if current events pass into history and we remain, we should heed that old saying, “those who fail to learn from history will be doomed to repeat it”.

11. “Education should only be concerned with what is useful in life.” Discuss.

The “useful” here is concerned with “practicality”, and is most likely referring to usefulness in getting a job. There are two important angles to explore here.

First, what other things besides finding gainful employment might be considered “useful”? Can we also include basic literary and social skills? Developing empathy so people can relate to others and their challenges? Contemplating what gives us meaning in life so as to lead more rewarding lives, find purpose, and possibly deal with mental health challenges more deftly? Much of the argument will centre on whether these things are considered useful and addressable by education.

Second, what do we miss out on if education is to “exclude” things that aren’t considered useful? Do we risk developing lopsided individuals? Might we be too obsessed with IQ but and neglect emotional intelligence? And how successful can education be, anyway, at addressing the “useful”? Can it at least sometimes be too rigid, outdated, and one-size-fits-all?

As a bonus, think about education systems across different types of countries. Some may lack access to basic infrastructure, material and funding, and so perhaps the focus should indeed be on these useful, fundamental things before anything else is seen to. Also consider whether how our definition of education should go beyond schools and extend to the workplace, adult education programs and personal philosophy toward learning.

Do check out the most popular TED talk of all time, where Sir Ken Robinson addresses the inadequacies of the education system in teaching creativity.

12. How far, in your society, should unpopular views be open to discussion?

Edit March 2020: This is a popular topic in schools every year. Check out our dedicated guide on it here.

Why do things need to be discussed and debated? John Stuart Mill and others have opined that this helps us verify whether what we believe is valid, through having to defend our beliefs against counterarguments.

The ability to critically debate thorny issues and resolve them is important for the development of civil society. Something along the lines of Voltaire’s* Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s “I disagree with you but will defend to the death your right to think it”.

Can anything be up for discussion? When should unpopular views not be discussed? When they seek to incite hate crimes? When they are offensive to beyond acceptable standards that each society agrees on? Where do we draw the line? How do we avoid excessive censorship?

Contextualizing to Singapore, some points to consider might include:

  • OB (out of bounds) markers
  • Existential fears over social unrest that could be caused by discussing taboo or inflammatory views
  • Tradeoffs between creative expression and threats to order and social harmony
  • The progress in social attitudes and continuing debate over things like gay rights and single parent families, which were once far more controversial than they are now

*Check out the comments for an interesting take on the origins of this quote

2 thoughts on “Insights from the 2013 A Level General Paper Essay Questions”

  1. Great post. However, Voltaire didn’t say the line “I disagree…but I’ll depend to the death your right to say it.” It was actually from Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

    Reply

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