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The Dragon Has Gotten Smarter: AI and the Teaching of Writing in High School

Last summer, while I was at a restaurant celebrating a birthday, a young boy, maybe nine or ten years old, was with his family at a nearby table, his smartphone inches from his face. His mother and her friends were chatting quietly while junior watched some soccer, and then played video games. He didn’t order dessert, I noticed. 

You may have seen similar scenes in your own home, when relatives or close friends bring their children, and the head-sets and screens come out so the adults can talk with drinks before and after dinner. It’s not easy to say no to the quiet of kids tucked away under some kind of cyber-blanket. 

But when these things happen, I can almost hear the sound of books burning in the background, their curling blackening pages going up in smoke that makes your eyes water. Lost opportunities spread out in my mind’s eye, in the billowing darkness fields and furrows seem gone to seed. 

Do I sound overly dramatic? Perhaps. 

But try googling, say, “Atlantic Monthly, iPhones and Children” and see what you find. It’s a virtual catalog of alarm from the intelligentsia largely triggered by Jean M. Twenge’s 2017 article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” There’s a 2018 article on how smartphones are changing the “texture of family life”; another on how children’s apps make them “sold to” constantly by advertisers; then, in 2019, individual journalists start making declarations of war against smartphones in the hands of children; to the full-on realization last year that screen time of almost any type is toxic to children and adolescents, which was pretty much the point of Twenge’s 2017 piece.

The Wall Street Journal’s reporting in its 2021 Facebook Files about the horrid effects social media platforms wreak on adolescents, particularly girls, forms a similar trajectory of concern. As recently as a few weeks ago, Congress has—yet again—excoriated in hearings Mark Zuckerberg, among others, for the algorithms social media uses to ensnare children. Our technology—the thing that is supposed to make life easier—is, for many kids, making life virtually impossible. 

And now we can add ChatGPT to the mix. With this technology, a student can ask a question, and receive back in seconds a fully formed essay. Athena didn’t spring from the head of Zeus so quickly. But then, she had wisdom. 

Of course, we’re talking about more than teachers needing to build a better mousetrap to catch plagiarists. But we’re not talking about less, either. We’re facing pages unread. We’re seeing more people growing up not knowing what to do with a good book. Can you miss something that you never had? I guess the answer is yes, deeply, but usually after it’s too late to do anything about it. While not as lurid as Instagram’s dangers, the loss of literacy is immense. The word “tragic” comes to mind. 


One strength of The Heights is the breadth of students we have; the world, in some senses, in miniature. Many of my students are academically gifted, many superb athletes, some both of these, some struggling in reading or math, some in love with books, some not in love with anything involving very much homework. Private schooling, after all, hardly banishes human diversity. After discovering last spring that several seniors used ChatGPT to write poems as part of a final exam in my poetry seminar, I’ve adopted measures to avoid these charades of learning only a click away. 

Well, one measure, to be honest. 

In late August, I went to our mail room on campus where supplies are kept and brought back to my desk blue examination books, in bricks of 250 each, wrapped in cellophane. My syllabi make for no surprises. The vast majority of the grade will be calculated by how well students do on bi-weekly essays written in class, in the blue examination books of boomer, pre-smartphone legend. 

These small, usually blue booklets originated in the 1850s at Butler University, in Illinois. They caught on at other schools, and sometimes have an honor code statement on the cover which the student signs, simultaneously identifying herself and her commitment to academic honesty. I used them in college in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They’re simplicity itself. 

There’s the rub. For the aspiring plagiarist, that is. Sure, some students can log onto ChatGPT and get answers to questions they think will be on the test. But most kids in high school, at least, won’t memorize five-page essays before spitting them out in class simply because avoiding academic labor is precisely the point of using AI. So, in my class, at least, they’re kind of stuck with another legendary aspect of writing—the blank page. Smooth as a drift of snow in mid-winter Vermont, its purity has the depth of unending possibility, hence the excitement and sometimes terror of staring into this abyss. And that challenge is precisely what my students need. 

Wait, you say. What about computer literacy? How are old-fashioned blue books, of all things, going to help the situation in today’s world? Let me explain. 


The experience of literature—or any fine art for that matter—is intensely personal, intensely inward, involving an incalculability of the spirit. Depth calling out to depth, as scripture puts it. Artificial intelligence may sift and repackage the insight enfolded in the language of such master spirits. But it won’t adorn your child’s soul with the playfulness of wisdom, or the compassion wrought by lessons over the ages of suffering nobly endured. 

Short of God’s grace, I know of no transformative power equal to words received into our inmost being written by the great story-tellers and poets of the world. 

Reading for meaning, for the richness of human experience in such works deepens our engagement with life. Learning how to articulate that richness at a young age is what class discussion is for. Learning how to convey it with precision, nuance, and style is what writing essays in blue books is for. That nimbleness of mind, that facility with self-expression on the sheer blankness of an unwritten page, is something that should be cultivated in every high school classroom in our country. 

There have always been off-ramps from study for slackers in high school and even college. Cliffs Notes are a venerable institution for the willfully ignorant, and today have morphed into hundreds of alternatives on the web. But ChatGPT really is the dragon at the gate of your child’s moral and intellectual future. 

Since spring of 2023, the dragon has gotten a lot smarter. It can answer essays on questions from high school or college literature classes with remarkable facility. Not, perhaps, equal to the top 5% of my students, it is true, but very good nonetheless. And therein lies the significant temptation which is also the risk facing students today: do you punch into ChatGPT the essay prompt for a take-home assignment and take your chances? Do you incorporate it into your own ideas? The saving of time alone makes this technology a nearly irresistible option for many students. 

Hence the blue book. 

My students, I am fortunate to say, get to tear into some great works of literature that others schools frequently neglect. Right now I’m teaching, in two sections of juniors and seniors, James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). It’s jammed with 1006 pages of conversation with Johnson, a man crippled with Tourette’s, with depression, and decades of poverty, who also wrote the first substantial English dictionary when he was forty-five years old, besides being a first-class essayist, poet, and critic. 

Boswell, his Scottish biographer, a philanderer, and full-time sycophant, describes the atmosphere of Johnson’s conversation (which could be at times outrageously sexist) as the Johnsonian “aether,” not a common word today but one in Johnson’s time that accounted for the transmission of light beyond the earth’s atmosphere. I asked ChatGPT to write an essay on this somewhat arcane topic. The result was startlingly good: paragraphs of pretty eloquent explanation of Johnson’s “aether” in its moral, intellectual, poetic, and spiritual dimensions. 

Going back over some blue books I had graded, copied and returned to my students in October, one jumped out at me. Its author, a junior, is someone with a quirky sense of humor. His essay on the Johnsonian aether was every bit as good as the AI version, but did one thing noticeably different. Edmund, my student, facing a blank page in a blue book, in a timed examination in class with his peers, had taken the initiative to give his essay a title. It’s not one you could see being instantly ginned up by AI. Only a clever high school student, with a charism for nicknames, could dream up this title. Much of Edmund’s essay was enlivened with a similar wit. 

So don’t rob your kids of this kind of opportunity to develop their creativity. Demand that their teachers be wary of the AI dragon, and let your children encounter the limitless possibilities of a blank page that only they can fill. 

In case you’re wondering, Edmund’s title was: “Aether-man.” 

About the Author

Michael Ortiz

English
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