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GRE Issue 9: It Is Impossible To Make A Significant Contribution Without First Being Strongly Influenced - With A Free Essay Review
PROMPT: "In any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced by past achievements within that field." Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.
I partially agree with this statement that in any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced by past achievements within that field.
It is true that under the influence of past achievements, one is more likely to make profound contributions to certain fields. Throughout history, many prestigious and prominent people, ranging from scientists to artists, reach great achievements due to the influence of past achievements. Newton, for example, is an excellent example of this point. By reading masterpieces of Galileo and learning the doctrine of Copernicus that earth is in orbit around the sun, he was not fettered by the religious advocacy that earth is the center of the universe and finally discovered the law of universal gravitation, which made significant contributions to physics. Even Newton himself claimed, “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. Thus, past achievements have a positive effect on later successors who make contributions within that field.
However, even though a lot of contributions are made on the basis of precursors’ attainments, being first strongly influenced by past achievements is sometimes detrimental to successors, hindering their inspiration or preventing them from boldly establishing a new theory which contradicts pervasive theories. For instance, a famous Chinese painter, Qi Baishi, recruited some apprentices at the age of seventy. In order to impart painting skills to his apprentices, he let them imitate his paintings repeatedly at first. But later, after his apprentices were skillful at painting, Qi immediately prohibited them from copying his painting any more. He argued that they were bound to learn mastery of painting by imitating his painting, but if they wanted to reach a higher level, creating fascinating masterpieces, imitation would undoubtedly suppress their inspiration and thoughts. Therefore, in some areas, if one is first strongly influenced by predecessors’ accomplishments, he/she can hardly get rid of this influence and create invaluable works since all their works are duplications of others.
In addition, contrary to the statement, it is possible to make significant contributions with being influenced by past failures instead of achievements. Sometimes, people can also learn something meaningful from predecessors’ failure, such as what factors lead to failure and how to prevent them. In commercial fields, the famous dot-com Baidu creates its distinctive search engine. Compared to Google’s search engine, the search engine of Baidu wins more Chinese people’s attention, because it is more suitable for them with respect to the language habit. Although Google’s search engine is very powerful, it is poor at analyzing sentences typed by Chinese people. Being influenced by its rival’s failure, Baidu overcomes this weakness and eventually wins more customers, making great contributions to Chinese netizens.
In conclusion, although influence of past achievements makes successors possible to make profound contributions, being first strongly influenced by them may be detrimental to their inspiration and thoughts. Also, people can make contributions under the impact of others’ past failure.
You make three reasonable arguments here: 1) sometimes people who make contributions are strongly influenced by past achievements; 2) sometimes being influenced by past achievements prevents one from making contributions; and 3) sometimes the impetus for new contributions comes from the failures of precursors.
The clarity of your arguments depends very much on the examples that you use. The least successful argument in this respect is the second one. In your first example, you are able to point to concrete developments that Newton was able to use before developing the law of universal gravitation. It is more difficult to clarify what an artist needs to avoid in terms of her or his relation to precursors and it is more difficult to explain what counts as a contribution. You don't try to explain this, and instead the success of your argument depends on your reader agreeing with Qi and also just agreeing with the assertion with which you conclude that paragraph.
Perhaps the problem has to do with the nature of the discipline. Fortunately, your goal here is not necessarily the prove a particular argument, but merely to discuss the extent to which you agree with the proposition. It is therefore completely fine to simply acknowledge that there are cases, such as painting, where the question of the importance of influence is more difficult to decide. We tend to value paintings that have the appearance of novelty, and so perhaps think the importance of a contribution is measured by the difference between the painter and the precursors. But I don't know whether it is possible for a painter not to be influenced by past accomplishments, and if I were writing this essay, I might well admit that (i.e., say "I don't know"), and conclude that I am uncertain whether the proposition is true in such fields of endeavor. (Remember that the examiner will not care about what you know or don’t know, and is only interested in how you think.) Alternatively, one might wonder whether a painter can be most influenced by the precursor he is most eager to avoid imitating.
In any case, you need to avoid two types of mistake that I think are made in this essay.
1. Avoid making strong claims on the basis of weak evidence and assertion. Avoiding this mistake can sometimes be as easy as saying "being strongly influenced ... may sometimes be detrimental" instead of "being strongly influenced ... is sometimes detrimental."
2. Make sure that your articulation of your position is as precise a reflection as possible of the reasons you present in support of that position. Your conclusion does a better job in this respect than your introduction. Remember that the original statement is that "in any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced." Saying that you "partially agree with this statement" is not an accurate reflection of the position you go on to elaborate. You are really arguing that it is not impossible to make a significant contribution without being strongly influenced. Your introduction should reflect that.