Opinion Here’s my AI policy for students: I don’t have one

ONE TIME USE ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN JOHNSON FOR OP-ZIMMERMAN (Ryan Johnson/For The Washington Post)
4 min

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.”

With the new semester upon us, I recently received an email from my university encouraging me to come up with a “policy” about the use of artificial intelligence in my courses. The university suggested that on the first day of class, instructors should inform students whether and how they can employ AI bots such as ChatGPT.

Professors have a summer assignment: Prevent ChatGPT chaos in the fall

So here’s my AI policy: I don’t have one.

Here’s what I’m going to tell my students instead.

Of course, you’ll have to notify me if you draw upon AI to write a paper, just as you are required to cite any other source. But whether to use AI or not is up to you.

Though, I hope you won’t.

I’m not saying that because AI can make up phony “facts” (although it can) or because it can generate racist and hateful text (ditto). I say this because AI does your thinking for you. There’s a reason it’s called “intelligence,” after all.

And I want you to be intelligent. I want you to stare at a blank page or screen for hours, trying to decide how to start. I want to you to write draft after draft and develop a stronger version of your own ideas. I want you to be proud of what you accomplished, not ashamed that you cut corners.

Most of all, I want you to decide what is real. One of my mentors, Neil Postman, a professor and social critic, famously declared that education should equip us with an effective “crap detector.” And Postman wrote that years before we all got access to the internet, which has made BS detection even more difficult — and even more crucial.

Sometimes BS is just lies — what today we call “disinformation.” More commonly, though, it is an indifference to truth rather than a deliberate flouting of it. Liars believe in truth; they couldn’t lie unless they did. People who peddle BS don’t care either way. In that sense, as Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote, BS is “a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

So here’s my question: Do you want to live your life this way? If so, AI bots are definitely for you. Let them write your essays, do your problem sets, draw your artwork, compose your poetry. As they get better, outpacing the systems designed to detect them, you’re less and less likely to get caught. And you might even ace your classes.

But you will never know what you really believe. You will become the kind of person who is adept at spouting memes and clichés. Like ChatGPT, you will sound as if you know what you’re talking about even when you don’t.

I will readily (and unhappily) admit that many college classes don’t help you figure out what you really believe in. They reward students who spit back what the book or the professor says. You might as well be a robot. So I don’t blame you if you draw on an actual robot to do the work for you.

But some courses really do ask you to think. And if you ask an AI bot to do it instead, you are cheating yourself. You are missing out on the chance to decide what kind of life is worth living and how you are going to live it.

Some of my colleagues are making students complete writing assignments in class to ensure that the work they submit is really theirs. I won’t do that, because I think it’s patronizing. You are grown-ups. You can vote in elections, and you can die in wars. This AI thing is your call, and it’s your life. I can’t live it for you.

A professor accused his class of using ChatGPT, putting diplomas in jeopardy

But remember: The bots can’t, either.

Maybe, as the futurists insist, AI will eventually take over everything we do. It will drive our cars, design our buildings, cure our illnesses. It will make beautiful art and music. It will end world hunger and poverty.

Yet there’s one thing it will never do: make you into a fully autonomous human being, with your own ideas, feelings and goals. I want that to be your ambition.

And if that’s what you want, too, then avoid the bots.

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