ChatGPT Can Write Better Essays Than My College Students. That's a Good Thing | Opinion

There has been a lot of hand-wringing from humanities types over ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot that can produce uncannily human prose. Headlines bemoaning the impact this will have on education and writing have abounded, from "The College Essay is Dead" to "The End of High School English." Alarmed colleagues in my department at the University of Iowa, which is known as "The Writing University" and home to one of the largest English Majors in the country, spent the last week forwarding these articles and debating their conclusions. Some felt the articles were overblown in their predictions, but I don't think they are. ChatGPT is ushering in the essay apocalypse—and that's a good thing. I'm happy to say good riddance to the college essay and other "skills" that we've come to see as proving the value of the humanities.

I'm perhaps more familiar than most with the intersection of AI and writing. Back in 2018, I started training an AI to write poetry as part of work I do bridging humanistic and digital study (my most recent book was based on a computational analysis of Shakespeare's social network). After spending hours building a neural network and training an early AI on a poem like Milton's Paradise Lost, I could prompt it to generate some pretty good poetry, though none good enough to shatter my confidence about my profession and my 401K.


But the new AI tools are a huge leap, and getting better all the time. Here's a prompt I gave to ChatGPT:

This is a passage from Act. 1, Scene 1, lines 130-33 of Dr. Faustus: "Philosophy is odious and obscure. / Both law and physic are for petty wits. / 'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me." Please write a paragraph explaining how this passage relates to the historical period in which the play was written.

Here's the response it spat out after about five seconds:

"This passage from Dr. Faustus reflects the cultural and intellectual climate of the Renaissance period in which the play was written. During this time, there was a renewed interest in classical learning, and many intellectuals were exploring the boundaries of science, philosophy, and the arts. The character of Dr. Faustus, a scholar who turns to magic and the supernatural, represents this intellectual curiosity and desire to push the boundaries of knowledge. In the passage, Faustus dismisses traditional fields of study such as philosophy, law, and medicine as "odious" and "obscure," and instead turns to magic as a source of understanding and power. This reflects the Renaissance spirit of seeking new ways of understanding the world and the desire to break free from traditional modes of thought."

I teach the Renaissance. On my final exams, answers like that would earn you an "A."

That's because my exams are, fundamentally, tests of basic skills in processing, retaining, and communicating information. For years, those are the things that we've been pointing to as the "transferrable skills" that you gain from a humanities degree. It ain't Shakespeare, but it's almost exactly what we tell anxious parents when they show up on campus, enviously walk past the palatial College of Business or the practical College of Nursing, and ask, "What will my kid do with an English major?"

But that was really the wrong answer—and that's what ChatGPT has exposed.

When a machine can write your homework, it's time to say, "To hell with those skills!" and return to deeper humanistic questions like, what is truth? What is. beauty? How do we know what we know?

On these kinds of questions, ChatGPT is hilariously inept, sometimes confidently asserts false or misleading information. This, by the way, is a feature, not a bug, along its path to human-like communication: AI falsehood only seems scandalous, menacing, or inept, because we somehow expect machines to tell us the truth, while we know that humans lie.

In fact, it's the fine line between truth and lie that gives us art.

"Tell the truth, but tell it slant," wrote Emily Dickinson.

Ask a machine what she meant by that, and you'll get lots of facts but no answers. And you certainly won't get it to tap into the experience of Dickinson's aesthetic, which she described this way: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it."

When machines have mastered skills, the most urgent work becomes the job of reminding ourselves what, besides productivity, makes us human. I'm not sure Dickinson made much of a "contribution to the economy," as those who views skills as the goal of the humanities would put it. But we're still making books, and films, and television shows about her, because she took the tops off of our heads.

Time for a new final exam, one that demands students find out something about themselves and tell it to you in a voice that is their own. To do that, they will have to feel something, and find a form to express it that makes you feel it too.

No machine will ever be able to replicate that.

Blaine Greteman is Professor of English at the University of Iowa, and the author of Networking Print in Shakespeare's England.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.