Menlo News September 26, 2023

An English Teacher’s Thoughts on AI

Menlo’s Upper School English Department Chair, Rachel Blumenthal, shares thoughtful—and thought-provoking—prose on the importance of the human voice at an assembly on AI.

“I enjoy reading human writing because I like getting mad at people.” I’m not the one who wrote that. But a real human named Jay Caspian Kang did. And while I prefer to get inspired by people rather than mad at them, what Kang writes definitely resonates with me. Because his voice is direct and unpretentious and a little bit sassy. His voice makes me feel–and have confidence in–the fact of the living person at the other end of the sentence. And what he says is unexpected and maybe just a little bit true.

After all, writing is at its heart a social endeavor. I write because I want other people to know me. And I read because I want to get to know other people, to be thrilled or convinced or illuminated by their ideas or yes, even made mad by them. And the unexpected things that people write jolt us out of our habitual ways of seeing the world. Your voice in all of its authenticity and authority (a word that means the credibility to give testimony and that shares its root with author, a word that means, among other things, maker, founder) is what makes discovery, invention, and transformation possible. If you are a world-maker, and Menlo, you are in training to become one–then you are developing a voice that will be capable of telling unexpected and impactful truths. You are developing your authority to author–and change–your world.

Artificial intelligence–for all its intriguing capacity–is not a world-maker. It’s a pattern-recognizer, maybe a world-replicator–we feed it data (writing) that already exists and its algorithms give us back something vaguely recognizable, something that with varying degrees of accuracy aims to represent our world as it has already been written, and as you expect to see it. A.I. may help us to “think differently” (a grammatically expected construction), but it alone cannot “think different,” to borrow the advertising slogan widely associated with Apple founder Steve Jobs. A.I. is only a tool. It can join us on our quest to learn, but it cannot replace the skills that make it possible for us to think–or to “think different.” While I don’t believe that our sole motive for thinking should be salesmanship, I cannot deny that our world will call upon you to sell your ideas, to make a compelling case to your audience that they should invest in you with their attention, their belief, their confidence, and yes, sometimes their money. Your writing is your brand. Your writing is your voice. Your writing is your self, your thinking, made manifest to others.

For when you learn how to write, you learn how to think. We sometimes talk about thinking as though it means to master the information and textbook knowledge that comes at us. But thinking actually means to form an idea in your mind, to make, to conceive, to cause something to appear to yourself. Thinking is what happens when you voice your curiosity, your intuition, your half-baked idea on the page and in the world. Here at Menlo we teach you how to write because we’re teaching you how to think. And one day, in the not-too-distant future, you will illuminate us with an unexpected and impactful truth, and it will be your voice we hear and follow.

So as you experiment with A.I., insist that it serves your voice. Insist that it supports, but never substitutes for, the lifelong work you must do to be a thinker. Insist that at the other end of every sentence you write is a person in whom we will want to invest.

Works Cited
Kang, Jay Caspian. “What’s the Point of Reading Writing by Humans?” The New Yorker 31 March 2023.