January 5, 2023
Like most students over the past 100 or so years, I learned to write essays by rote repetition of the lifeless five-paragraph formula: introduction leading to a thesis (typically, some version of the teacher’s perspective), three body paragraphs with evidence, and a conclusion that essentially paraphrased what I had done. Now, the world is all atwitter because we have arrived at the logical conclusion of this mechanistic approach to writing: Artificial intelligence can relieve us of this dreary work. If the purpose of learning to write were simply to crank out formulaic essays, this development in AI might be cause for celebration. But the act of writing serves other purposes and offers many more benefits.
Perhaps the most powerful of these is that writing helps writers discover what they think. Unfortunately, although some teachers use the five-paragraph essay approach only briefly as an effective scaffold, its (more common) long-term use has led too many students to believe that writers need to know what they want to say before they begin to write. They must, so pedagogical pathology demands, formulate their thesis and outline the three sub-topics and their evidence. But, actually, although writers typically have some sense of what they want to say before they start working—some ideas and feelings that kindle a desire (or even need) to write—the writing process itself is a constant journey of discovery:
Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.”
Robert Bolt: “Writing a play is thinking, not thinking about thinking.”
James Baldwin: “You go into a book and you’re in the dark, really . . . You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over. But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.”
John Updike: “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.”
Take the most mundane example. At the end of the first paragraph, I originally wrote, “But writing has many more purposes and benefits.” I read that sentence over and over, but it didn’t seem to capture what I felt I meant. “Writing” wasn’t exactly right; I meant the process of writing, the act of writing. And “writing” doesn’t “have” anything; it serves purposes and offers benefits. Good lord, I spent perhaps 10 minutes discovering what I thought and trying to capture it with precise words that I could only hope would communicate it to a reader.
A more significant example is the writing of this paragraph. I needed to write several drafts of this essay over three days before waking at 4:15 one morning to discover my motivation for writing it: the Atlantic article on “How AI will transform academia.” The tone of the article seemed so accepting of this technology as simply another of the “disruptive” changes that we might as well accommodate. All we need to do is to ensure that humanists and technologists talk with each other so that this technology becomes more than a “gift for student cheats”: It might become a “powerful teaching assistant” or a “tool for creativity.” Having gained prestige in the business world where the word “disruptive” often suggests new opportunities for making money, applying the word to anything new tends to sanctify it. We need to be more discerning. Think about the disruption the internal combustion engine or nuclear power has inflicted on the planet. That’s what writing this essay revealed to me. I would not have discovered and articulated the thoughts in this paragraph without the three days of writing that preceded it. The subconscious continues to work on problems that truly engage us, even when we are no longer consciously wrestling with them. This may be one of the greatest joys offered by the act of writing—that elf working in the back room and suddenly opening a door to offer you the gift of a new thought.
Even experienced writers who have very clear ideas and like to generate specific outlines before they start writing will make new discoveries as they shape their essays, search for the exact words that capture their meaning, and struggle to communicate with and engage their readers. Writers stop and start, stare at and reread what they have written, delete and insert, delete and delete, cut and paste. An hour can pass between writing two sentences and include thoughtful pacing, a walk or jog, and shouts of frustration. A day can pass before writers discover that they actually meant the opposite of what they wrote yesterday. All of which suggest another great benefit of writing: deep engagement in something that matters to the writer. Giving a damn is essential to developing the ability to think deeply. As neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang observes, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” Writing is a tool for thinking.
Not until I got to college and shook off the shackles of the five-paragraph essay did I discover the joy in the agony and frustration of actually writing what I believed to be true, what mattered to me emotionally, and what I wanted to learn more about. My history teacher directed us to write about the causes of the American Revolution. I groaned. The classic five-paragraph formula loomed. When I sat down to face the assignment, something snapped. I had had enough. Perhaps my mood was, in part, rooted in the moment: It was the early 1960s, the awakening of the age of rage against boredom and conventional, formulaic thinking. So, sitting at my desk, my thoughts roiling in adolescent hormones, I discovered that I believed that the American Revolution, like any war, was the result of stupidity. What did the English think would happen, after ignoring the Colonies for a century, when they started imposing taxes and fees and treating the Colonies like cash cows?
I wrote. For the first time in my numbing years in school, I enjoyed writing, enjoyed trying to wrestle all these ideas and feelings into some sort of shape other than the lifeless five-paragraph format and the implicit expectation merely to regurgitate the political and economic theories we had been reading and discussing in class. I felt excited, engaged in ideas, and free to think and speak my truth—what resonated with my experiences and observations about life and people. I felt I was learning through the act of writing.
This experience in my history class opened a whole new world to me. As a theater major, I spent a lot of time reading literature—plays, but also fiction and poetry. And quite suddenly, I understood what people meant when they spoke of Olivier’s Hamlet or Gielgud’s Hamlet or Burton’s Hamlet. Each of these actors had found his self within the play and discovered the character within himself. The play resonated deeply and differently for each of them, and if I opened myself to the play, I could follow my emotional responses to the actions and thoughts of the characters and discover what the play meant to me. Blodget’s Hamlet—an empathic journey through Elsinore that led me back to me and to an understanding of all that I had in common with the rest of humanity. And the act of writing—the struggle to articulate and explain so that someone else (a reader) could understand the constantly deepening truths that I was discovering and the connections that I was making as I wrote—was essential to the development of my thinking and learning.
There’s no reason why most students can’t learn this way. The key is to ensure that they are free to write about ideas and questions that matter to them and are free to find evidence and create explanations and an organizational strategy that they believe will be effective in helping them communicate their thoughts to a reader.
If learning to write involves little more than painting by numbers—following formulas and repeating a teacher’s ideas—then why not AI essays? But if writing supports thinking and learning and deep engagement and empathy and discovery; if the developmental effects and rewards of writing are educationally more significant than the resulting essay, then AI essays will be just another nail in the coffin of education. AI essays may be excellent and even interesting (like AI paintings); their sentences may be superior to what many people can produce, but transferring the act of writing from students to AI will diminish student learning. Like those who are doing the talking, those who are doing the writing are doing the learning. Who should be the learners in our schools—our computer programs or our children?
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.
One thought on “Artificial Writers: The Brain-Snatchers | Alden Blodget | 7 Min Read”
AMEN! Selfishly, I am relieved my sons are midway through college and will not be affected by this mind numbing development in AI. I worry about younger children. Anyone who learned to express opinions or emotions by wrestling and pinning down words should be concerned.