For years I have been stating that the university as we know it has been over for a while. I have also stated that the professoriate is dead. Especially for most of those who exist in the social sciences and the humanities, this demise is not necessarily a bad thing. I have written about the professoriate’s hatred of America and of capitalism, the ascendent socialist mindset, and the Marxist indoctrination by the professoriate of our youth. Despite these thoughts and insights, I never thought that I would stand before a class and feel my complete irrelevance as an educator; feel like a relic and some strange creature that should be retired instantly. And all because of an AI language model called Chat GPT.
Chat GPT is an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot developed by OpenAI and released in November 2022. The tool itself and professors are in an arms race against each other – and professors are losing. It usually takes weeks to collect students’ papers after posting an assignment. Deadlines are mostly a thing of the past. When Chat GPT was first launched, however, I had at least nine students turning in well-crafted, eight-page papers within an hour of posting the assignment.
After being a professor in the classroom for twenty-six years, I still spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for my classes. They are a combination of short lectures interspersed with discussion from students. I call on students frequently to respond to what they have read, and to offer analyses made by other students on the assigned readings. This allows us to form a community of thinkers and discoverers—of both fact and values. As a philosophic community we form a “brain attic.” Knowledge is shared collectively but processed individually. At any point each person can share his or her rendition of the facts and concomitant analysis of said facts.
Recently students have been coming to classes late or not at all. Some come to record the classes and type pertinent questions gleaned from the lecture into Chat GPT. Others are fact checking every utterance I make against the wisdom of the AI program. But when I asked a student for his reasoned viewpoint to a point John Locke made in his classic “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” the student typed the question into his computer and said: “It says here that….” and proceeded to read off the AI generated response. In the manner of most students, he made zero eye contact with me. Today, fewer and fewer students are looking at their professors during conversations, lectures and even during in-class discussions. I am speaking of polite and basically good human beings whose socialization via social media has left them bereft of appropriate social skills.
Banning computers in the classroom is pointless. Most students would rather endure the repercussions than sit through one-and-a-half hours of classes without their gadgets. As my student read what sounded like a vague, generic, and trite response—which had already been offered as a possible objection and had been debunked in class two days prior—I felt my irrevocable sense of irrelevance. It was accompanied by a cold shudder. The world suddenly felt flatlined, amorphous, and closed-in. The sky seemed to have disappeared.
In that moment I could imagine the future. Why would students pay enormous sums of money to sit before a professor when, in their minds, they could receive a substantial education from an AI configuration? The student seemed satisfied with his answer. I did something, though, that unless one is almost manically motivated, Chat GPT cannot do and, therefore, will impair one’s capacity to use one’s brain even further and to acquire knowledge and to learn. I asked him a set of follow-up questions that would get him outside his own cognitive siloization. The questions were: What does freedom mean to you and why? What type of freedom would you rationally defend based on what you’ve learned about freedom so far? What principle of adjudication would you use to arbitrate among disputing conceptions of freedom competing for supercedence in the society you live in?
He looked a bit overwhelmed. I told him the answers were all there in his mind. He just had to think. After class, we had a small talk. I chided him gently about outsourcing his mind to an AI configuration in any area where his mind was called to respond to a question pertaining to the realm of values. He acquiesced.
I have three primary goals as a university teacher. The first is to explicate the texts I teach as thoroughly as possible and to do so with integrity, style and respect while simultaneously training students to engage the texts critically. I believe that there is a place for formal lectures in the classroom. However, I always devote a great deal of time to discussion and, when possible, to individual presentations. I will quite frequently practice a one-on-one Socratic type of inquiry with each student in the classroom at some point. I think the students truly enjoy this. For up to five minutes at a time I work intensely with his or her viewpoint. I challenge the student to examine the more nuanced dimensions of the idea and offer conceptual corrections when necessary. I think each student eagerly awaits his or her turn knowing I will eventually engage him or her. My goal is to create an atmosphere where philosophy can be practiced in a very exhilarating and rigorous manner.
My second goal is derived partially from the first. I think that one of the major goals of a liberal arts education is one that tries to develop an expanded consciousness in its students. Education is seen not just as engagement with texts because they are important texts. It is embraced as a quest to explore the historical, present, and future sense of the human world with an answer to the questions: what is the good life and what are the indispensable social goods that one needs to live a good life? Since education continues the process of socialization, however, I am in a position in my role as a philosopher in the classroom to provide them with the various textual and pedagogical resources to comprehend, process, and analyze the knowledge they have absorbed. Hopefully this empowers them to arrive at fruitful ways of interpreting that knowledge as it comes to bear on the very complex world we live in. If the course has magnified their understanding of the past and the present and gives them some purchase on the future, then I think that I have fulfilled one of my major responsibilities in the classroom. While I challenge students by encouraging them to examine their assumptions, beliefs, and traditions, I do not proselytize in the classroom and refrain from any overt politicization of the material under study.
My third goal is to develop and embody standards of excellence in myself as a moral intellectual in the classroom. By demonstrating how a committed philosopher who has charged himself with the highest standards of execution functions, I believe my students will come closer to understanding many of the ideas to which they are being exposed. In the person of their professor, they see that there is no distinction between philosophical life and ordinary living. At the end of their college tenure each student should emerge as a rational, autonomous, and sovereign individual capable of understanding the world he or she lives in, and capable of navigating the word with an ability to create a life plan for him- or herself.
There is much here that an AI configuration might be able to replicate in the future. I’m not sure. I know for now that in bypassing the community of the classroom which involves tapping into the collective brain attic of one’s colleagues—a direct referent whose mind you can spontaneously engage with, and one that is mediated by the “stuff” that constitutes the personal identity of that individual—wisdom is not possible to attain. For indeed, it is in encountering and often countenancing the autonomy and sovereignty of others and their exercise of these attributes which allow us to experience the sublime, serendipity, spontaneous insight, intellectual intimacy, and cognitive breakthroughs. The pauses, the repetition of a question whose repeated utterance is delivered in a different tone of voice that triggers an insight, the gaze held between interlocutors as they exchange ideas that communicate emotions that mediate the cold dissecting hand of reason deployed in rational argumentation—all these phenomena work themselves on the mind in a manner that connects us to the humanity of others, and that tethers us to our own. Even the most brilliant egomaniac can still be told he’s a bumbling idiot by a person of modest intelligence and be left wondering hours later: Am I really?
My students and others, in trusting AI configuration to take precedence over their own independent value judgments, are acting on the premise that AI models can make faster calculations for them and, that with a codified history of pattern recognition of their tastes, judgments, likes and dislikes, and behavioral repertoire, they can commit to a degree of accuracy that which is one’s rational long-term self-interest. One can easily imagine asking a device if one should have salmon or steak for dinner and the AI bot responding: based on your blood pressure and cholesterol readings today and the past six months which have been growing progressively higher, I would suggest neither. Going forward, I am placing you on a plant-based diet.
I mentioned that one of my goals as a professor in the classroom was to develop excellence in my character in such a manner that students could pin their aspirational identities on the trait itself. It is not hard to imagine that AI bots will assume agency soon; phenomena with perfect agency especially if they are programmed with a multiplicity of religious and secular moral systems. If they can make ethical decisions for us (including situational ones) based on their understanding of our eccentricities, our preferences and proclivities, sensibilities, and a pre-programmed algorithm to satisfy the pleasure principle in our psyche, then it’s not even clear why people would need Church, God, or the individual exercise of their own rational faculties.
The machine itself would have become not even a new digital deity—which it already is but, rather, the Deity for a new race of trans-humans, those for whom freedom, autonomy and personal sovereignty are already anachronisms.
The choice was clear for me on that day I felt my irrelevance accompanied by a cold shudder: either I morph into something radically different and transform my mind and, perhaps, my body into a different kind of thing—or face extinction as the human being I know myself to be.
The shock of the new weighs upon me.