Buy the Hype? (A GMAT Practice Essay)

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In my recent studies for the GMAT, I saved this practice essay and thought I would share it here.  The goal is to analyze the below issue and come out on one side or the other.

“In order to understand a society, we must examine the contents of its museums and the subjects of its memorials. What a society chooses to preserve, display, and commemorate is the truest indicator of what the society values.”


The goal of understanding a society is a difficult one – societies may be defined very broadly, or very narrowly, and as with any other complex subject matter, there can only be levels of understanding.  There is no such thing as complete “understanding”.  But even within the parameters of sociology, the above opinion is naive at best, presuming to accept the contents of museums and subjects of memorials as a true indicator of what a society values.  The dangers of this approach are catastrophic, and followers of the author of that opinion should be very wary before accepting that school of thought.

The most obvious flaw in the approach is that societies could (and do) choose to project a certain image of themselves which may have little (or nothing) to do with key differentiators for those societies.  For example, did the television programs of 1950’s America truly represent life in the Eisenhower era?  That is certainly the image society in general wished to portray.  (It should be noted that much of the artwork of the day, currently displayed in museums as the author suggests, show a very different image than the television and movies of the period.)  Most societies have their own form of propaganda, and although it is important to study the image portrayed in those media, it is also key to look behind the propaganda for other elements of truth which may paint a more complete picture of the society.  So in addition to watching Leave It To Beaver, perhaps students should also study the Beat poetry of the era, listen to the blues music, and read what was written by the poor and generally voiceless majority of the society.

The argument continues in its naivite when assuming that a society even gets to determine what it preserves, displays and commemorates.  Most often, it is governments who determine such things – just think of North Korea or Nazi Germany.  Do either of those societies (as defined by a majority of its citizens) actually value what their leaders say they value?  Even in less dictatorial societies, responsibilities for choosing representative art and history is left to the rich, the powerful, or simply the “expert”.  But do these minute minorities truly represent the values of their society?  Most have other motivations for their selections – popularity or societal agreement are usually not factors when ruling bodies (or individuals) make their determinations, but rather judgments of “quality”, “importance” or asthetics are being made.

There is a value to studying the “party line” when trying to understand a society, and often there is little else to use as reference.  After all, history is written by the victors.  But students of a society should be sure to look at all the available data in order to make their own judgment, and to attack each point of data with a critical mind, trying to understand not only what they are hearing, but why they are hearing it.  Only then can a student begin to understand a society.


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