Hello ChatGPT, goodbye education | The Triangle

Hello ChatGPT, goodbye education

Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Kamara | The Triangle

Cheating is as old as the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25). It is also as old as the university. Therefore, there’s certainly nothing new about ChatGPT, the new recipe for the oldest scam, except for its greater efficiency, easy portability, and its complete absence of mental activity – the activity that supposedly defines the business of the university.

ChatGPT, the brand name for the artificial intelligence gadget that writes term papers, solves math problems and in general smoothes the student consumer’s way to their higher education degree of choice, has nothing to do with intelligence (nor do other similar devices), and of course nothing to do with an education except not getting one. It is a means of queueing algorithms to respond to input prompts (“Who was Julius Caesar?”) and producing a reasonable facsimile of an academic requirement. This is not a mentality. Mind requires consciousness, inquiry, value and choice. All of this necessitates trial and error; it is this process that produces learning. True, neurons in the human brain perform functions analogous to algorithms, but neurons have to perform work. Algorithms merely function. There is nothing in the slightest intelligent about an algorithm, only in the mind of the programmer who writes its code. However complex, it is anti-intelligent, and its product is an anti-education.

Again, this is nothing particularly new; it is simply the mechanization of cheating. When I faced my first chalkboard, the easy method of producing a term paper was to buy it from a ghost writer who would craft it to order. This was a perennial problem for faculty. I didn’t have much problem spotting fakes, though. One constraint on cheating was cost, and so the weaker students turned more readily to it. If I had a prior sample of the student’s work it was generally obvious within a couple of sentences whether the paper had been store-bought. Yet written work and essay exams declined for a number of reasons – as did general literacy. I found it not only tedious but increasingly risky to confront cheaters. My bloodhound’s nose could pick them off well, but to prove cheating was an elaborate process, and as grade inflation subverted class evaluation and students, redefined as customers, became clients to be humored for administrators, faculty became increasingly educators pretending to teach to students pretending to learn.

At this point, students crack the whip in higher education, or have it cracked in their names. Recently, a nationally renowned chemist, Maitland Jones, Jr., was fired from his position at New York University when students signed a petition protesting that the class he taught was too hard. The students didn’t call for his firing, but they got it anyway from administrators fearful of losing business. Dr. Jones was an emeritus professor, teaching his course for the love of it, but also without the protections of tenure he had enjoyed for decades at the New York University and Princeton University, and thus liable to summary dismissal. This is by no means unusual nowadays. A colleague of mine at Drexel, long tenured, was suspended from teaching last year in mid-quarter at or on the pretext of a student complaint, barred from campus for months, and remains subject to ongoing administrative harassment and abuse. Of course, a majority of university faculty now teach on term or adjunct contracts, at borderline pay and little to no job security. Maintaining academic standards in these circumstances does not come with a survival kit.

On the other side of the fence, the pressure on students to get good grades at competitive schools is great. The costs of a college education can easily approach, if not exceed, six figures, creating a debtor class trapped before it even enters the job market. For such students, every notch on a grade point average can shape a career from first paycheck to last, and their primary goal, not learning but earning, makes higher education a transactional experience. The pressure on faculty to keep their jobs by pleasing their students is thus mirrored by that on students to avoid the prospect of bankruptcy by finding them. What gets lost? Education.

This is where ChatGPT comes in. Cheating is not only the logical extension of the transactional classroom, but virtually an imperative. If the goal of the classroom is the grade, whatever furthers its pursuit is not only the smart but the indicated thing to do. It is smart because the student gets to feel he’s pulling the wool over his teacher’s eyes, although the wise teacher actually has them closed to begin with. If you catch a student or two cheating, you can think you’re upholding standards for everyone else. If everyone is doing it, the penalty is yours. And ChatGPT makes it easier to cheat across more kinds of testing, and more brazenly. If you don’t join the crowd, you’re only the dumb one in class.

The end result of all this is an educational system that is cynical and corrupt; that is, one that cheats everybody. The present-day American university is an institution that ranks right up (or down) there with Congress, and justifiably so. But Congress is not corrupt without a reason, or a goodly number of them: moneyed interests and their lobbyists; dark money elections; revolving doors between public and private interests. For the George Santoses of the world, the sheer smirk of the liar and cheat. For the university, it is its happy bedding with corporate and military-industrial complexes; the tax-free privileges that lead it into commercial ventures far from the purposes that purportedly justified them; an administrative super-hierarchy that drains and distorts its educational mission; and much more. 

These interlocked interests used to be called, in now-defunct times, the System. The new wrinkle in it is social media, which invites its user-victims to cheat themselves. It is so easy now to access chatbots that going to school itself seems a pointless diversion to many. Yes, it used to be a dreary process to call the class roll. Now, it is a pointless one. For many professors a cursory glance will tell them that half their students haven’t shown up. Does it matter, at a certain point, who they are? If you want to flunk half the class, you are the one who will be flunked. Some teachers may be bad. Some are good. Maitland Jones was a good one. It got him a pink slip. 

You do not even need to actually cheat anymore to get the work credential a degree supposedly confers. George Santos simply lied about having graduated from Baruch University and NYU, even supplying his nonexistent grade point averages and class ranking. He lied about the big firms he had not worked for. He lied about having starred in volleyball. He lied about being descended from a Holocaust survivor. He denied only one activity he could honestly have claimed, being a drag queen. He sits in Congress, representing New York’s Third Congressional District — having, of course, used a false name.

Is there no social institution, then, that seeks the truth? There is only the university — but truth has been commoditized there too.