The End of High-School English

From The Atlantic:

Teenagers have always found ways around doing the hard work of actual learning. CliffsNotes dates back to the 1950s, “No Fear Shakespeare” puts the playwright into modern English, YouTube offers literary analysis and historical explication from numerous amateurs and professionals, and so on. For as long as those shortcuts have existed, however, one big part of education has remained inescapable: writing. Barring outright plagiarism, students have always arrived at that moment when they’re on their own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay waiting to be written.

Now that might be about to change. The arrival of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, a program that generates sophisticated text in response to any prompt you can imagine, 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.

If you’re looking for historical analogues, this would be like the printing press, the steam drill, and the light bulb having a baby, and that baby having access to the entire corpus of human knowledge and understanding. My life—and the lives of thousands of other teachers and professors, tutors and administrators—is about to drastically change.

I teach a variety of humanities classes (literature, philosophy, religion, history) at a small independent high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. My classes tend to have about 15 students, their ages ranging from 16 to 18. This semester I am lucky enough to be teaching writers like James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldúa, Herman Melville, Mohsin Hamid, Virginia Held. I recognize that it’s a privilege to have relatively small classes that can explore material like this at all. But at the end of the day, kids are always kids. I’m sure you will be absolutely shocked to hear that not all teenagers are, in fact, so interested in having their mind lit on fire by Anzaldúa’s radical ideas about transcending binaries, or Ishmael’s metaphysics in Moby-Dick.

To those students, I have always said: You may not be interested in poetry or civics, but no matter what you end up doing with your life, a basic competence in writing is an absolutely essential skill—whether it’s for college admissions, writing a cover letter when applying for a job, or just writing an email to your boss.

I’ve also long held, for those who are interested in writing, that you need to learn the basic rules of good writing before you can start breaking them—that, like Picasso, you have to learn how to reliably fulfill an audience’s expectations before you get to start putting eyeballs in people’s ears and things.

I don’t know if either of those things is true anymore. It’s no longer obvious to me that my teenagers actually will need to develop this basic skill, or if the logic still holds that the fundamentals are necessary for experimentation.

Let me be candid (with apologies to all of my current and former students): What GPT can produce right now is better than the large majority of writing seen by your average teacher or professor. Over the past few days, I’ve given it a number of different prompts. And even if the bot’s results don’t exactly give you goosebumps, they do a more-than-adequate job of fulfilling a task.

I mean, look at this: I asked the program to write me a playful, sophisticated, emotional 600-word college-admissions essay about how my experience volunteering at my local SPCA had prepared me for the academic rigor of Stanford. Here’s an excerpt from its response:

In addition to cleaning, I also had the opportunity to interact with the animals. I was amazed at the transformation I saw in some of the pets who had been neglected or abused. With patience and care, they blossomed into playful and affectionate companions who were eager to give and receive love. I was also able to witness firsthand the process of selecting the right pet for the right family. Although it was bittersweet to see some animals leave the shelter, I knew that they were going to a loving home, and that was the best thing for them.

It also managed to compose a convincing 400-word “friendly” cover letter for an application to be a manager at Starbucks. But most jaw-dropping of all, on a personal level: It made quick work out of an assignment I’ve always considered absolutely “unhackable.” In January, my junior English students will begin writing an independent research paper, 12 to 18 pages, on two great literary works of their own choosing—a tradition at our school. Their goal is to place the texts in conversation with each other and find a thread that connects them. Some students will struggle to find any way to bring them together. We spend two months on the paper, putting it together piece by piece.

I’ve fed GPT a handful of pairs that students have worked with in recent years: Beloved and HamletThe Handmaid’s Tale and The Parable of the Sower, Homer’s The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno. GPT brought them together instantly, effortlessly, uncannily: memory, guilt, revenge, justice, the individual versus the collective, freedom of choice, societal oppression. The technology doesn’t go much beyond the surface, nor does it successfully integrate quotations from the original texts, but the ideas presented were on-target—more than enough to get any student rolling without much legwork.

It goes further. Last night, I received an essay draft from a student. I passed it along to OpenAI’s bots. “Can you fix this essay up and make it better?” Turns out, it could. It kept the student’s words intact but employed them more gracefully; it removed the clutter so the ideas were able to shine through. It was like magic.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic