Will artificial intelligence, operating via “bots” and other non-human intermediaries, replace English composition and the need to teach and learn it? My colleague Robert Pondiscio has written thoughtfully about this, and his answer is no.
So is mine, but my explanation is somewhat different. (Both Robert and I should probably offer a disclaimer: We both like writing and spend much of our days engaging in it and such ancillary activities as editing other people’s writing.)
Let me acknowledge, however, that what ChatGPT (and maybe kindred bots) can do is pretty incredible. I went through the rigamarole of signing in to try its pilot version, to which I assigned three tasks.
First, I asked it to “write a short essay about beauty.” I got back five shortish but well-crafted, even stylish, paragraphs that employed a wide-ranging vocabulary in what—if it were human—we’d probably term “thoughtful” ways. For example (from paragraph 2):
...it is clear that beauty has the power to inspire, uplift, and bring joy to those who experience it. Whether it is the beauty of a sunset, a piece of music, or a work of art, the experience of beauty can be transcendent and deeply fulfilling.
Then I asked “Why should I go to Princeton rather than Yale?” This yielded four paragraphs that displayed some knowledge of both institutions—locations, sizes, academic strengths, similarities, and differences—while concluding with the obvious:
Ultimately, the decision between Princeton and Yale should be based on your individual academic and extracurricular interests, as well as your personal preferences. It may be helpful to visit both campuses and talk to current students to get a sense of the atmosphere and culture at each institution.
Finally, growing a bit more adventurous, I asked ChatGPT to “write a poem in the style of Longfellow.” What came back was four quatrains in Longfellow-ish meter about a “stately, ancient oak tree.” It was a little rocky in places but contained some clever touches and several decent rhymes. For instance:
Through the years it has stood tall
Through storm and wind and rain
A reminder of a simpler time
Before the world went insane
Yes, I’m impressed. As Robert observed, these products surpass what the vast majority of U.S. high school (and probably also college) students could write today. What’s more, they each came back to me in less than a minute.
That’s why Robert is also correct that AI’s burgeoning sophistication in writing English is scarcely relevant to the challenge facing most instructors in U.S. high school (and college) classrooms, which is to get their students over enough of the hurdles—spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, paragraphs, connected thoughts—to communicate even a little bit in written prose. (Poetry will have to wait.)
But why learn to write at all? Why churn through those fussy, pesky precincts like grammar and spelling, especially when other technologies can fix it all up? Why take up good school time with this stuff, particularly considering how labor intensive it is for teachers and how irksome for many of their pupils?
To me, three reasons are pretty compelling.
First, writing helps you think better, more clearly, more cogently. It’s a bit like math in that no matter how little we may engage in it as adults, the more we learn about how to do it, the better analysts and thinkers we become. That’s why, for example, people usually write speeches before uttering them. Think of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural or King’s “I have a dream” speech if they hadn’t been written first. (Note that neither had access to spellcheck or Grammerly to fix up the mechanics for them—and if they had had such access, their results would not have been nearly as compelling as they famously are.)
Something more recent? Consider the talk the Nobel Peace Prize recipient gave in Oslo the other day, explaining why, at present, she favors war in Ukraine. Ponder why highly-motivated jobseekers make notes ahead of time on the points they want to make during an interview.
You’ll never understand the causes of the Civil War—or the potential of nuclear fusion—as well as the person who writes a paper about it. A bot might write about it for you, but that won’t help you understand it. You won’t be able to explain as effectively why you prefer one form of music or art (or pizza or gym shoes) to another if you can’t “put it in writing.” Yes, a bot can order pizza for you. Yes, with a little practice, it will remember which kind you prefer. But it cannot help you understand what leads you to like or dislike the kind with pepperoni, the kind with anchovies, or (yuck) the kind with pineapple.
Second, it’s important, maybe now more than ever, to communicate effectively with others, and today that takes so many forms, from speaking to tweeting to emailing to blogging to podcasting to speech-making, debating, and more. Written communication parallels spoken communication in importance—even when it, too, occurs in cyberspace rather than on embossed stationery. (It sure is nice to receive a handwritten thank-you note, though.) Effective written communication also produces better results. You won’t be able to do that unless you learn how to write clearly, to connect ideas, to make persuasive arguments.
Third, there are tons of things that no bot can do as well as a good writer because most of those things are intimately associated with the writer. Explaining in your cover letter why you want a particular job and are qualified for it. Persuading the admissions office to let you in despite that B- in chemistry. Convincing a banker to make that loan to you, or persuading an investor that your startup really will make money someday. Attempting to convince your mother-in-law that you truly do (maybe) love her. Explaining to the parole board why you should get out of prison before the end of your term. Preparing an amicus brief. Writing a recommendation for a former employee or colleague. Constructing a strong proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund your neuroscience study. Prepping an op-ed for the New York Times that they might actually publish.
You may respond that some of those tasks won’t ever be tackled by most of today’s students. But job applications? Mothers-in-law? Some tasks are common, even universal, and some have to be done in writing, and others benefit from being done in writing.
Writing, in sum, is good for developing your brain, for organizing your thoughts, for deepening your understanding, for improving your communication, and for managing some of the assignments, challenges, and opportunities that life throws at you.
AI-powered bots can do some of that. But if you try to let them do it all, you’ll find there are many things that you need to do that they—and you—won’t do as well.