November 29, 2023

ChatGPT, a system that understands natural language and responds in kind, has created a sensation since its launch less than three months ago. If you’ve tried it, you’ve probably wondered what it’s about to revolutionize – or possibly destroy. Among the first victims of ChatGPT, one now-common view holds, will be the form of writing that entire generations practiced during their education. “The essay, especially the undergraduate essay, has been central to humanities pedagogy for generations,” writes Stephen Marche The Atlantic. “It’s the way we teach kids to research, think and write. This whole tradition will be fundamentally disrupted.”

If ChatGPT is able to instantly develop a credible-sounding academic essay on any given topic, what future might the academic essay itself hold? In the new interview above, the host of the YouTube channel EduKitchen poses more or less exactly that question to Noam Chomsky – a thinker you can rely on when looking at education. “For years there have been programs to help professors detect plagiarism,” says Chomsky. “Now it will be more difficult because it is easier to plagiarize. But that’s about the only contribution to education I can think of.” He concedes that ChatGPT-style systems “might have some value for something” but “it’s not obvious what”.

Currently, Relevant Technology sees Chomsky’s use of ChatGPT as “basically high-tech plagiarism” and “a way to avoid learning”. He compares its rise to the rise of the smartphone: many students “are sitting there chatting with someone on their iPhone. One way to deal with this is to ban iPhones; another way to do it is to make the classroom interesting.” That students instinctively use high-tech to avoid learning is “a sign that the education system is failing”. If it doesn’t “attract students, interest them, entice them, force them to learn, they’ll find a way out,” just like he did when he borrowed notes from a friend. in 1945 to pass a boring college chemistry class without attending.

After spending most of his career teaching at MIT, Chomsky retired in 2002 to become a full-time public intellectual. Robert Zaretsky of the University of Houston, who still teaches, recently offered his own, darker take on ChatGPT and education. “The high essay died years ago,” he argues. “It’s a mug’s game where a student sends me an electronic file that, when opened, spits out a jumble of words that the sender claims is a finished paper” — which the machine learning system’s output could actually be much more beneficial to. Most technological “disruptions” leave behind both positive and negative effects. If the college essay is truly unsalvageable, maybe ChatGPT will finally bring about its replacement with something more interesting.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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