It’s a grand old hubbub created by the sudden, dramatic entrance onto the media stage of ChatGPT, a program that’s devoured pretty much everything ever written and published, which can then produce articles or essays on any subject it’s asked about. And it’s online free. .
It seems to operate mostly by anticipating words likely to follow words you input and then so on down the line. Like “Napoleon” — and you’re off to the races. This sounds nothing like what we experience as thinking creatures. Although, on reflection, we can probably all recall people who talk like that — as witnessed by clichés I’ve dropped into this very column.
I asked Adam Zendel, my colleague in a course I teach on media at U of T, to try ChatGPT since he marks course essays. He did and his responses included WOW, SPOOKY and “‘alarmingly good.” He said it’d likely get good marks, though it’s “about as stylishly written as an encyclopedia article.” When he spoke with the class, he said if they wanted to prove they’d really written their essays, to simply insert some signs of actual human life.
He did seem energized by it, perhaps in contrast to the tedium that uni essays (and marking) have largely become. That may show less about a spooky new tech and more about worn out pedagogic practices still in use.
Universities (and public schools like New York City’s) are in full panic though they’re uncertain why. They’ve proliferated administrators and support staff in recent years, some for “academic integrity” offices that breed eerie proceedings run by budding Grand Inquisitors. But that’s mostly about stuff like plagiarism, which ChatGPT isn’t. It’s not copying; it’s, ugh, creating — so it’s like asking your teacher parent about a topic and copying down what he says. There’s rules against that too but they’re harder to convict on.
Writing in The Atlantic, Stephen Marche says “The College Essay Is Dead,” though for generations it’s been the way “we teach children how to research, think and write.” That would leave Grand Canyon-sized holes in the courses but a better question is: would it be a bad or good thing?
Harold Innis, a colossal U of T prof a century ago, said that the formal, “polished essay” — of which he’d written and marked multitudes — was introduced by Chinese dynasties, c. 600-1300 C.E., to “prevent the literati from thinking too much.” Those literati can make trouble if they get too critical of state policies. It worked so well that potential troublemakers were kept occupied with their essays and eventually the Mongols took over.
But why do polished essays disrupt critical thinking? Because they closet you inside your own thoughts rather than the freewheeling give-and-take of debate with others, where real creative thought occurs.
Start with Socrates and his pupils in ancient Athens. Socrates never wrote down a damn thing, though his student, Plato, kept notes and wrote them up. Socrates said reading gave people a “conceit of wisdom” without true understanding, since they hadn’t properly interrogated the issues, through discussion. That’s why, wrote(!) Innis, writing is excellent for “disseminating” new truths but of little value in “discovering” them. This moment is a chance to reverse that course.
Universities are in crisis. Enrolments in the humanities are alarmingly low and prideful overlords like Doug Ford don’t see the point in teaching anything that doesn’t lead directly to a job helping someone rich get richer. The result is grads who can do specified tasks but may have trouble thinking incisively about the mess their generation’s in.
But wait, can there be another way to teach and learn? Talking and thinking together? The Socratic method! The oral tradition, still fitfully around, not just for teaching but marking!
How do good ideas replace bad ones? Almost never because of their clear superiority. Almost always because the dusty entrenched ways became unusable with the arrival of some unexpected new factor: cue ChatGPT.
This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.