Teachers online have been commenting on, panicking over, and offering verdicts on the advent of ChatGPT for about six months, so I figure I’ve waited long enough to write something reflective enough to be worth reading.
One particular line of argument has troubled me when folks write about ChatGPT (or when AI writes about ChatGPT for them–I figure I should get that joke in early so I’m not tempted later) more than the panic and the perhaps even more than the techno-optimism. Some writers, admirably seeking out a deliberative and balanced approach to the newly-accessible technology, tell us readers that ChatGPT is just a tool like any other tool, and we should encourage students to learn the use of that tool as we have, over the decades, taught students to use writing, books, computers, ink pens, and other kinds of technology.
Thinking at that altitude, the metaphor is hard to gainsay: certainly schools, as long as people have organized schools, have been about learning to use a society’s equipment well. In the most distant schools to which we have access, the experienced taught the inexperienced to structure their thoughts rhetorically, to commit to memory the poetic metaphors that permit ideas to move from group to group and person to person, to calculate using intellectual and mechanical and electronic tools, and otherwise to do things that emerged into human life contingently, and whose advent we can narrate because we have some memory or some idea, however faint or however vague, of human existence before that equipment.
But as Plato and the heirs of Plato will tell you, not all tools do the same kinds of work. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates tell a parable about the advent of writing and of Thamus, an Egyptian god-king who tells the god Theuth (and it’s always going to be fun to say “the myth of Theuth” out loud) that writing, as a tool, might have drawbacks that Theuth does not anticipate:
At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.(Plato, Phaedrus, trans. by Benjamin Jowett)
This passage occurs to me in this conversation not only because I dig some Plato (though I do dig some Plato) but because Socrates’s myth (of Theuth) insists that there are no questions of technology in any simple sense. Technology always does its work for the sake of something beyond itself, whether in the interest of money-making or power-consolidation or labor-relocation or some combination of those hyphenated purposes. In the case of writing, Theuth (and thus Socrates and thus Plato) wonders whether a technology that puts the work of memory onto an external object deprives the soul of memory, something that increases in power with use. (Plato seems to have a sense that I’ve read echoed when psychologists write about memory: in healthy nervous systems, committing things to memory does not result in “running out of space” as it might on a bookshelf or a USB drive. To the contrary, the person who remembers many things becomes able to remember more things by power of association.) So while a library does store more intellectual labor than a single person can undertake in a lifetime, merely possessing that library does not constitute wisdom.
Alongside Plato’s parable I’ll propose a pair of my own: imagine that a person who walks a mile each direction to and from work each day stops walking and instead gets a ride in an automobile with a coworker. To be sure the person travels the same distance, and riding in the car, that person frees up several minutes before the journey begins to do things other than traversing the distance between home and work. But by doing so, the former walker no longer translates the work of traveling into the health of the heart, the lungs the limbs, and otherwise of the body, and some might argue that she also loses out on certain psychological or spiritual benefits of daily walking.
Or consider a person who goes to a gym to lift heavy things for the sake of health. That person could avail herself of a forklift to move much more weight from a lower altitude to a higher, and her limbs would not get nearly as tired (I assume–I neither lift weights nor operate forklifts very often) in the process. But if moving heavy objects from a lower to a higher altitude is an intermediate goal of lifting weights and something like health is the ultimate goal, then the forklift, in making the intermediate goal easier to attain, loses out on the ultimate goal.
Thus education, and here’s where I do return to Plato: when people see my personal library (and it’s a big personal library), they don’t very often ask me how many volumes I own.
That’s a good thing–it’s been a while since I counted.
Far more often they ask me how many of the books I’ve read. My standard answer, and it’s likely true, is between two-third and three-fourths of them. But the algebra is not the most important inquiry: when people pose that question, they reveal an instinct that reading books does something to the person reading them that the same books wouldn’t do if someone merely sat in their presence or moved boxes of them from here to there or even sniffed their pages. Engaging with a year of someone else’s intellectual work in the course of a week (and I know some books take longer to write and some books take longer to read, but go ahead and finish writing that comment–you’ll feel better) avails the reader of questions that the reader might not have posed and metaphors that the reader might not have considered and perspectives that the reader might not have attempted without the author’s help.
No big surprise there–it’s called reading.
But there’s also something called writing, and even in cases that involve transferring possession of a finished text from a student to a teacher, the text at the end of the process, in pedagogical settings, makes certain promises about the hours and days that went into a text that the teacher usually reads and evaluates in a matter of minutes. Some student writing might genuinely open new horizons for teachers reading them, and for those moments I’ve been thankful over the years. But in the cases where the student’s line of argument did not alter my mind significantly, and even in those cases in which I think (and this condemns me as I write it), “I’ve seen this essay a dozen times before,” the transfer of the text–digitally or on paper–from the student’s possession to mine is only important because the student promises, in that transfer, that she has undertaken work that has, to be sure, generated a text that did not exist before but that, closer to ultimately, done work on the writer.
So when I see apologists for ChatGPT and Bard and other Artificial Intelligence writing programs promise students that those tools will write their opening drafts, my first question is not whether or not I can catch the perpetrators but why the purveyors of machine-written drafts would want to deprive would-be writers of the hours and the labor and the gradual formation that happen when a human being strings subjects and verbs together.
I’m not naive, I assure you–I know precisely why students in high-pressure, high-stakes, over-committed environments would want to offload that labor so that she can focus more time and more attention on resume-building, increasing her competitive edge in athletic and musical and professional arenas, and maybe even occasionally resting. Whether we call it late-Capitalism or whether we call it Organization-Kid culture or whether we call it something else, we Americans (and likely others, but that’s the society with which I’m most familiar) build systems that punish the inefficient and invisible and time-consuming practices that make for good rhetoric and thus good education.
I don’t blame the kids.
But I do invite the kids to consider other possibilities. Resisting the always-on, get-the-grade, publish-or-perish, don’t-have-time-for-this tendencies of American life in 2023 requires a will to give up certain promises in favor of other promises, and the promises I have to offer don’t tend to show up in graduation speeches. So my own work remains rhetorical: I ask students to identify with a community of thinkers who usually doesn’t get famous in our own lifetimes, who often lose out on monetary earnings and social standing and other things. And in exchange we don’t actually get the peace which passeth understanding, at least not yet.
But maybe thinking about the words we employ to imagine that peace might constitute a good way of life.
Maybe becoming better able to name the evil so that we can pray to God more clearly to deliver us from it might be worth something.
Maybe the ancient and the inefficient work of writing one’s own sentences and paragraphs and arguments, even if it doesn’t make us better people, might give us a better sense of why “good life” is so difficult to articulate.
I’ll concede that asking Artificial Intelligence to write the sentences for me, then adding my own “style” to the thought that the machine has simulated, might well “work.”
I just wonder whether that kind of “work” gets at what the old kind of work did.