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The Illegitimate Child of Mnemosyne: A Pop Quiz on AI and Plagiarism

It was a Monday morning, the hour before lunch. My colleagues and I met in those last few days before the spring semester began to discuss the challenges of plagiarism. It was not simply that a student might present someone else’s work as his or her own: our problem was the new open AI chatbot called ChatGPT (which may some day soon replace Google). Our problem was that a student might ask ChatGPT to write his or her paper, or physics lab report, or translate his Latin, or do his calculus, receive an instant and accurate result, and present it as his or her own work—and believe that there is nothing immoral or even professionally unethical about it. Before we can make someone else see why this is plagiarism and plagiarism is wrong, we have to be able to show and explain the nature of the particular good involved (learning skills and information, for example) that motivates the work. Once we get the nature right, we will be able to see what the real end is: not the successful completion of the task, but the improvement of the person who does it.

It is difficult for some of our students to see the problem with using a tool to get the answer that fills in the blank and completes the exercise, whether it’s math or Latin or physics or an essay on the Odyssey. It is difficult for anyone, really, in part because there are so many tools, and in part because it hurts us to sit still and think quietly for long enough to see the differences between them. That is because it can take a long time to think through from the surface of my experience down to the principles that have caused it. Here is a quick example.

Q: Why do I have to translate this sentence from Latin into English?

  1. A) The instructor requires an accurate translation in exchange for a good grade, which is the means to get my degree.
  2. B) The instructor tells me that if I do so, I will learn to read Latin.
  3. C) Both.

If you answered A, you are like many Latin students, but not most. You are taking Latin merely because it is somehow required for your degree or diploma. If you answered B, you are the unusual student who simply wants to learn Latin and is willing to go where your fascination leads you. Most of us would say C, because we want to know Latin, but not badly enough to try unless learning it also satisfies a degree requirement. There are just too many goods to pursue in this life, and one of the things we pay schools and universities to do for us is to help us select them. In this example, there are two goals at the top. Whether the higher goal is the degree or the higher goal is the acquisition of the new skills and knowledge, both are at the top. 

But why do you want to do either one of those things? 

Q: What is the degree for? 

A: To get a job. 

Q: What is the job for?

A: …

Q: What is reading Latin for? 

A: To enter into conversation with the great teachers. 

Q: Why converse with the great teachers of all time?

A: …

Q: How long does it take for us to get down to an answer that is not a means to another end? 

A: As long as it takes to define happiness. 

Q: And what is the name of the power or skill by which I can find out what that is?

A: …

Perhaps it was not so easy after all. In your patience and your charity, try another with me. 

Q: What is plagiarism? 

A: The presentation of someone else’s work as my own and claiming credit for it.

Q: Is using ChatGPT’s responses as my own an example of plagiarism?

A: [ChatGPT] Yes.

Etymology of Plagiarism

But if it is difficult to know what the word means, that is because the word has a life and a history as it changes ever so slightly through the centuries. In the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian had his lawyers write up a reference book, a collection of all the laws and edicts of the centuries of ancient Roman jurisprudence. One of those laws was the law against plagium. This crime, plagium, was the kidnapping and selling of a free man, or of another man’s slave without the owner’s consent, into slavery. From this word we got plagiarius, which is the name for the kidnapper who commits this crime. From this of course we got our word plagiarismus, or plagiarism if you like: the act of stealing someone else’s slave. Mere antiquarianism from a mere antiquarian? Maybe so, but the definition from ancient Roman law is more applicable than ever now that plagiarism is being done more and more with someone else’s AI (historians of computing will tell us that there was a time when some computers were even called “slaves”). For what else is the development of AI than man’s quest to have a person—someone else—do his work for him?

But do not expect me to advocate, like a Luddite, the rejection of Chatbot. Remember that the original Luddites were not men who hated new technology. That is not why this terrorist weaver union snuck into factories and destroyed the new power looms. They did not hate new tools, but loved a particular tool too much.

There is no cure for the problem of ChatGPT. In fact the terminology of “cure” and “problem” is already flawed. It pushes us into a kind of arms race, and indeed many will be suggesting new kinds of exercises that the machine can not do, as well as teaching our students to value the things that the human can do, and the machine can not do. This is a small good and should be done, but it is as a whole strategy merely one of constant retreat and surrender. A day will come when we will no longer be able to find things that we can do, which the machine can not do. 

Be careful not to infer from this that I am claiming that there are no human activities that only humans can do. When I say that a computer is thinking, it is not really thinking in the way that I am thinking, and there is a difference. But I am claiming that a time will come when we will no longer have the words to appreciate the difference—

Q: And what is the difference?

A: Has it come already?

The future that I am predicting is not just one in which computers get ever better at thinking and communicating until they are as good as we are: it is one in which we get ever worse at it until we fall to their level.

The most important change that we as academics need to make to adapt to the development of new tools is this: we must focus on teaching our students not merely to develop those uniquely human faculties of which AI is not capable, but also, and more importantly, to value those uniquely human faculties of which AI is capable, and seems to be even more capable than we are.

Chief among these is memory. Memory: the mother of the Muses. The mother, therefore, of learning. Our beautiful, wise Penelope that will inspire us to follow her toward our best selves, turning neither to the right nor to the left. The heroine who accomplished her goal by daily repetition of the same task until she could do it without thinking. Memory, which tends to lose its value for a person who carries a computer in his or her pocket.

Q: Why do I need to know when Ohio was founded, or what its flag looks like, or how to get there from here, or what its natural borders are, or how many United States presidents came from there, if I can take it all out of my pocket in ten seconds?

  • 1803; 
  • triangular swallowtail; 
  • I-70 from where I’m sitting; 
  • Lake Erie and the Ohio River; 
  • Eight—fun fact: Ohio and Virginia both claim on their state websites to be the “Mother of Presidents” and to have produced “more than any other state.” And you won’t have an easy time adjudicating the dispute: William Henry Harrison is simultaneously claimed by both Ohio and Virginia, so A) they’re tied at eight, or B) they’re tied at seven, or C) you need to relax.

Human or Computer Skills?

Additionally, if my teacher tells me that I have to memorize this date (and a bunch of other dates and names!), then he’s not educating me: he’s just turning me into a robot that regurgitates facts. The begged question, the premise snuck in there, is if a robot can do it, then it’s not a human perfection. I shouldn’t work to do—more slowly and imperfectly than a robot—the things that a robot can do. If the tool can do something, and if I always have the tool, then there is no value in my being able to do it, and experiencing pain in order to gain that ability is a contemptible proposition for the ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, but not for reasonable people like me.

As one of my colleagues pointed out in the meeting I mentioned, going to a university and asking ChatGPT to write your paper for you (or your lab report or your calculus homework) is like going to a gym and using a machine to pick up the weights for you. 

Q: Why have you come here to college, or to school?

A: …

We need to remember that we come to educational institutions for the same reason why we come to the gym. “Gymnasium” in antiquity, and in some places today, like Germany and Italy, was one word for one place where you do both kinds of things. The reason why we come to these places is to develop our uniquely human perfections. We go to the experts to find out from them what our human perfections are and to discover for ourselves what our personal perfections are. That discovery happens during conversations with the great teachers, with teachers and classmates, and with friends around food and drink. For you and me, memory is at the top of that first list, along with lifting dumbbells. And you don’t need me to convince you, because the experience is perfectly accessible and its results are themselves the most pellucid eloquence in its own defense. Becoming stronger always feels good.

Q: So what is the mnemonic equivalent of lifting dumbbells?

A: Memorizing everything. 

Q: You don’t really mean everything.

A: Yes. I do. Everything that is adjacent to something else you already know. 

State capitals. Poems. Verb paradigms. The periodic table of elements. The quadratic formula. The seven countries of the Levant that end in -stan. The first constellations that you can see when you look up tonight (e.g., Orion pointing to Taurus and then to the Pleiades). The seven Baltic countries. The state, US, and Interstate highways within ten miles of where you’re sitting.

I’m not saying that the process feels good. That was the whole point earlier about pain. And that’s the whole point that will cure us of the temptation to ask ChatGPT to write our papers for us: when we learn to value memory, we learn to value the painful process of gaining it, and we haven’t a second to spare for the charlatan that is selling us the chance to be freed from it. We don’t want to be freed from pain. We want to be happy. 

It’s because we love something good, not because we fear something evil, that we can look right past the drug and embrace the pain, like The Dread Pirate Roberts who said, after drinking the iocaine powder, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

Pain is the spiritual currency with which we will purchase our next good decision, so that the earth is littered with gold and jewels, if only we can make ourselves stoop to pick them up. Pain is the price of wisdom, and wisdom is the answer to the toughest question on this quiz.

About the Author

Lionel Yaceczko

Latin, Greek
Lionel Yaceczko holds a BA from the University of Dallas, where he wrote a thesis on Propertius, and a MA and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. His dissertation on education in the Roman Empire led to the publication of his book Ausonius Grammaticus (Gorgias Press, 2021). He is also the author of an introductory Latin textbook, Jerome...
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