My astonishingly nerdy quote was from “Alice in Wonderland”:
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so little.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be master -- that’s all.”
I doubt anyone -- including me -- understood exactly what I was trying to say. But I knew there was something important in there, something about why we do what we do, and for whom, and what is truly important, and what is merely signposting to something important.
I’ve been reflecting on this quote as the hand-wringing surrounding ChatGPT continues. Stephen Marche’s hand-wringing was particularly blunt: he wrote an article in The Atlantic titled "The College Essay Is Dead."
“The essay, in particular the undergraduate essay, has been the center of humanistic pedagogy for generations. It is the way we teach children how to research, think, and write. That entire tradition is about to be disrupted from the ground up,” he wrote. “Neither the engineers building the linguistic tech nor the educators who will encounter the resulting language are prepared for the fallout.”
It’s true that we have used essays to teach children how to research, think, and write for generations. It’s also true that the essay is the product of the researching, thinking, and writing; it is not those acts themselves. It has always been possible to research, think, and write without producing an essay -- now it’s possible to produce an essay without having researched, thought or written at all.
It's clear why this would be distressing for educators, who are largely concerned with two things about students: proving capability and predicting future performance. Again, it’s important to note that proving capability and predicting performance are windows into someone’s learning, not the learning itself. It’s the map, not the territory.
The college essay has long served as a window into whether someone knows how to research, think, and write, a map of their capability. Like all windows, it has a range of effectiveness. Maybe it’s sparkling clear and provides a superb view. Maybe it’s grimy, or has curtains pulled across it, or there’s fog obscuring the thing you’re trying to see.
It is true that ChatGPT has just rendered the essay nearly useless as a window. But the core question we need to be asking is, what are we trying to see? And is it the right thing?
Ben Thompson at Stratechery elegantly reframes the challenge: “Imagine that a school acquires an AI software suite that students are expected to use… every answer that is generated is recorded so that teachers can instantly ascertain that students didn’t use a different system. Moreover, instead of futilely demanding that students write essays themselves, teachers insist on AI. Here’s the thing, though: the system will frequently give the wrong answers… the real skill in the homework assignment will be in verifying the answers the system churns out — learning how to be a verifier and an editor, instead of a regurgitator.”
In a world driven not only by AI and ChatGPT, but also by bots and disinformation, isn’t verification one of the most useful skills we can cultivate?
What is more useful, the map or the territory? Who is to be master, the window or the view?
Let’s not despair that a traditional measure of skill -- a map, a window -- is now obsolete. Let’s focus on the skill itself: the territory. When we do that, it becomes far easier to answer the question of how we will respond to a tool like ChatGPT -- and far easier to educate for the future.