The Writing Assignment Problem
Education is in crisis and one of the culprits seems to be ChatGPT.
The problem is simple: why learn to write well when bots can just do it for you? That might sound cynical, and on one level it is, yet it is an understandable question. After all, just as the typewriter removed the perceived need for good handwriting, and just as the calculator disincentivized people to learn to compute, and just as the spell check has deterred students from trying to spell correctly, and just as the internet has disincentivized people to remember things, so artificial intelligence is challenging the perceived need for students to write well.
For many teachers, let alone students, the conclusion is unavoidable: there is no longer any reason to write essays in school.
Should We Drop The High School Essay?
High school teacher, Ben Berman, reflected this growing mood when he reported that his students have ceased taking an interest in learning to write, and he’s okay with that.
“They’ve already tried to convince me that asking ChatGPT to write their college essays for them is no different than using Grammarly to correct their dangling modifiers,” Berman explained in a 2022 article. His conclusion: “high school writing, as we know it, is doomed.”
Berman is not alone. He represents a growing discourse among high school teachers who are arguing we should drop the requirement that students learn to write. Daniel Herman reflected this growing mood in a piece for The Atlantic in which he suggested that ChatGPT “may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill.”
At first glance, it seems shocking that teachers would be on the front lines of the campaign to abandon writing as a teachable skill. To be sure, many teachers are not on board with this, but to the extent that many are, we have to ask why.
Be Modern and Embrace the Changing Times
Part of the problem is that adaptation to societal change seems to signal a forward-looking and adaptable mindset that has become so important for those in the teaching guilds.
Teachers do not wish to be considered rigid, inflexible, and old-fashioned. Whereas in some cultures, teachers are seen as purveyors of ancient wisdom and thus a hedge against change, teachers in the United States are often harbingers of change. There are many reasons for this, and one is that the Enlightenment myth of continual progress forms a plank of the modern liberal mindset. According to this mindset, societal change is not only inevitable but beneficial. So if times have changed and writing is no longer necessary, far be it for teachers to stand in the way.
How Writing Became Performance Driven
Another problem is that even before ChatGPT came along to challenge writing as a necessary teachable skill, our educational systems lost a sense of why we teach good writing.
Many educational theorists (Carol Dweck, James Stigler, James Hiebert, etc.) have shown that Americans tend to see school assignments not so much as exercises to facilitate growth, but as fundamentally performative—a test of students’ ability.
Certainly, if one thinks the purpose of writing an essay is a sort of performance to test how smart you are, it is hard to defend such an activity in the face of developments that seem to render that type of smartness obsolete. We do not, after all, still evaluate a person’s competence by how well they can drive a horse-drawn cart.
But this misses the point. Good rhetoric, whether expressed in skillful writing or speaking, does not simply enable us to perform well in the world. Language is part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and the ability to use language skillfully is fundamentally tied to clarity of thought, and therefore human flourishing.
Writing and Human Flourishing
Good writing, especially essays organized according to formal structures, helps us to become a certain sort of person. Being able to write well assists towards the characteristics constitutive to a well-ordered soul, such as critical thinking, epistemic virtue, attentiveness, linear thinking, and clarity of thought. Ideally, a language-based education leads a student eventually to delight in good literature and to revolt when language is put to the service of triviality, ideology, and sin.
Does that mean a person cannot flourish without knowing how to write well? Of course not. But as St. Basil reminds us, there are many tools that assist with human flourishing, and good education is one of them.
Harbinger of Things to Come
I would suggest that the post-writing movement, if not counteracted and thoroughly refuted, will usher us headlong into a deeper and more dangerous crisis.
Most people don’t yet realize it, but ChatGPT has functionality to operate as a reasoning and problem-solving engine. So if large language models render the teaching of writing passe, then by the same argument these systems will also render the teaching of critical thinking obsolete. Why not abandon good habits of thinking and just submit to the hive mind?
Of course, the public school system is well advanced down this road already. But that doesn’t mean things can’t get worse.
What About Research?
While I have argued that ChatGPT should not be used as a substitute for writing, does that mean it has no place in the classroom? What about using it as a research tool? Those are questions I will explore in a follow-up post.Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/chatgpt-in-the-classroom-part-1