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I'm practicing some essay writing and I've come across a few prompts that are like this one:

In any field—business, politics, education, government—those in power should be required to step down after five years.

Write a response in which you discuss your views on the policy and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider the possible consequences of implementing the policy and explain how these consequences shape your position.

So the problem is that if I choose to disagree with the statement , I don't know if that means I'm arguing against any type of term limits, or term limits of specifically five years (meaning I would be okay with term limits of four or six years). If I agree, does that mean I only agree with term limits of exactly five years or is is 5 just an arbitrary cap? Bah!

More generally, if I come across some very specific statement such as the one above, how am I to treat it if my only options are to agree or disagree?

(Note: I wasn't sure if this was the right place to post, but please let me know if it's not and I'll gladly take it down.)

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The answer is: discuss -all- of the options you've presented, and give your opinion on all of them. –  SF. Jan 6 '13 at 3:54
    
@SF Well, it's a timed essay, so I'm only allowed to choose one side and run with it. –  user4572 Jan 6 '13 at 5:42
    
At risk of getting failed for being snotty, being you I'd choose the side of "well-formulated" in "well-formulated vs badly formulated essay subjects". :D –  SF. Jan 6 '13 at 10:53
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@SF. I don't understand what that means, but I'll nod and chuckle along as if I did... –  user4572 Jan 6 '13 at 18:45
    
tofu: I believe @SF means that whoever evaluates your essay is likely to be much less interested in which side you take than in how well you support your position logically. –  J.R. Jan 8 '13 at 9:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

In a situation where the policy position might be implemented in more than one form, your first step should be to lay out the underpinning principles that you recognise.

In the example you quote, I might oppose the proposal for 5-year term limits because I

  • oppose term limits of any kind
  • support term limits in principle, but believe five years is too short
  • support term limits in principle, but believe five years is too long

Once you have defined the field in this way, you can state the basis for your position and then arrange your arguments to match that position.

In this case, you can then argue (logically) for term limits in general but against the specific term proposed. (If you do that, without laying out your analysis first, your essay might be criticised as "confused" in that it appears both to support and to oppose the proposition.)

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So the problem is that if I choose to disagree with the statement, I don't know if that means I'm arguing against any type of term limits, or term limits of specifically five years...

Wait a minute; where did the prompt ask you to agree or disagree with the statement?

Write a response in which you discuss your views on the policy and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider the possible consequences of implementing the policy and explain how these consequences shape your position.

I don't interpret anything in that language dictating that your position needs to be wholesale agreement or disagreement with the policy. In fact, the prompt seems open-ended enough that it practically invites a more complex position than a simple yes-or-no answer.

I'd say it's an ideal setup for writing about how five years is an arbitrary limit, and how term limits might be a fine idea, but the notion that every field – politics, industry, and education – should be saddled with a universal limit is silly. Why should the principle of a school be held to the same limit as an elected mayor, or the CEO of a company?

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As Glenn says, it's a poorly formulated question precisely because it creates the ambiguity that you describe.

I don't know who wrote this question and what they are trying to accomplish. In context it sounds like the person who wrote the question was just careless. But such questions are a pretty standard technique in opinion polls or surveys by people trying to get a pre-determined result: Word a question in such a way that you push people to give the answer you want, but then put out a press release where you don't quote the exact question.

Like, a few years back I saw news stories about some survey that found that the "traditional American family" was pretty much dead, with only some tiny percentage of Americans fitting that definition. The news stories talked about all the alternative family arrangements that were becoming more popular: from second marriages with children from prior marriages to people living together without marriage, homosexual couples, etc. But they never defined exactly what they called a "traditional family". I finally found one news story that gave the definition they used for the study: two married people of the opposite sex with two children from that union sharing a home. So if you had three children: not a traditional family. If you were a newlywed couple who hadn't had children yet or if your children were grown and moved out: not a traditional family. If you were married for 60 years and your spouse died: not a traditional family.

My point with that example isn't to take a position on social issues -- that was just one example, I've seen plenty from all over the map. My point is that when constructing a question where you are trying to solicit opinions, you have to be careful to distinguish whether you are asking about a general principle or a detail, and in general to make clear just what you are asking.

If I was given such a question in the context that you are describing, an essay question, I think one easy way out would be to acknowledge the stated number so that the examiner cannot say that you misread the question, and then dismiss it. Like if you were for term limits, say, "We could debate the exact time, whether it should be the five years stated in the question or some slightly longer or shorter term, but ..." If you are against term limits in principle, I think I'd make clear that it is not the specific number that you are objecting to, but the concept. i.e. you are not rejecting five years because you think it should be seven years or two years, but because you think there should be no limit at all. Alternatively, if you think that the length of the limit is a crucial question, than say that. Like make clear why less than three years is just too short but more than four years is too long or whatever.

But if you are forced to say "yes" or "no", then the question is meaningless and almost unanswerable. Like the classic, "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

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It's actually a pretty badly formed policy question. When it comes to crafting a debate or discussion question, you generally want to make the language such that it is a binary choice: Pro or Con. For instance (subsequents are sourced from here):

Resolved: Armed guards should be placed at all schools.

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.

Resolved: Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system.

Resolved: On balance, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission harms the election process.

Resolved: On balance, the rise of China is beneficial to the interests of the United States.

If I were presented with what you posted and had to craft a debate response (that's really what the rest of your requirements suggests), then I'd treat the statement as:

In any field—business, politics, education, government—those in power should be required to step down after a specific amount of time.

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