With the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, educational institutions face an existential crisis. This “large language model,” a predictive text tool that learns from a massive backlog of human-generated writing, can pass various professional exams, help students write essays, and may replace all kinds of intellectual labor (witness the doubling of Buzzfeed’s stock on the announcement that it will use OpenAI tech to create content).

Not mere reform but revolution in various areas of education now seems inevitable. For example, essays written and submitted via computers will no longer be a reliable form of educational assessment; a substitute will be needed. Solutions might involve more technology, such as compelling students to share their screens as they compose papers, or less—like reinstituting the practice of handwriting papers during an exam period.

The revolution won’t be limited to methods of assessment. ChatGPT can already function semi-reliably as an educator, and future models may be able to outperform the average American teacher. Teachers will have to compete with this technology, and students will have to judge whether and how best to use it.

Empirical crises necessitate theoretical adjustments. Educational theorists in academia can no longer afford to engage in the sort of postmodernist play characteristic of everything about their field today (except, of course, the dogmatic assumption that every tenet of identitarian leftism is unquestionably true). When it comes to educational theory, technology-obsessed transhumanists—who want to use tech to augment or replace human capabilities—are more relevant than the so-called posthumanists, drenched as they are in twentieth-century French postmodernism and its Anglophone appropriations. At least the transhumanists focus on concrete issues that demand our attention with increasing urgency. The quasi-religious political goals of the postmodernists, by contrast, would do little or nothing to respond to real-world problems like the challenges novel technologies pose for education. “Decolonizing” or “queering” the canon, deconstructing traditional gender categories, and “decentering whiteness” won’t help with the AI dilemma.

It’s tempting to recommend a Rousseauean turn to less formalized, more existential education. Perhaps this is all that’s worth salvaging from the morass of contemporary academic literature on educational theory, which often recommends ditching numeric and letter grades, focusing on “experiential” learning, and grounding lessons in real-world activities. Take the kids on a tour of the neighborhood and teach them math, history, and the rest in a “natural” or “organic” fashion, rather than a rigidly pre-programmed one (which, thanks to its very artificiality, tends to instill in its practitioners a thoughtless conformism). Don’t suppress discussion of issues irrelevant to “the lesson”, such thinking goes; anything that arises can be a lesson if adeptly handled by the educator.

Such a vision may seem impractical, even utopian. What is certain is that it would be devastating for the economic bottom line of colleges and universities, whose quantifications of educational achievement interlock with the interests of, for instance, corporations that value grades as an indicator of future performance for prospective employees. But maybe that would be a good thing—if there were also a corresponding revolution in the social role of education. A transformation in corporate hiring practices would be unavoidable, for example, with hiring screenings previously reliant on GPAs having to become more personalized. Perhaps we’d see a shift to trial employments or a return of apprenticeships (hopefully better than the infamous unpaid or underpaid internship). The social and economic importance of colleges and universities would drastically shrink; a higher education might become a “luxury good”; new and cheaper institutional alternatives might proliferate.

In any case, revolutions in education will soon be upon us. Hannah Arendt wrote that the question of how technology should be used is not itself a technical question, but an ethical, political, and philosophical one. If that’s true, then educational theory has never been more relevant. The problem, perhaps insurmountable, concerns its ability to respond to these exigencies in its current state of decadence.

Photo: imaginima/iStock


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