The following is a condensed version of “How A.I. Could Save Liberal Education” by Lee Trepanier, published at Law & Liberty.
There have been discussions about A.I. writing programs like ChatGPT in the academy. The past few months have seen a flurry of activity with college administrators calling emergency meetings, professors changing their assignments, and educators writing essays (some perhaps written by A.I.?) that range in reaction from the nonchalant to the apocalyptic about the fate of college writings, the future of the humanities, and the outlook of higher education.
For those not familiar with A.I. programs like ChatGPT, they are chatbots—computer programs to simulate conversations with humans—that predict what words and phrases should come next. As an A.I., they continually learn as they gather more data, from human interaction and from texts like articles, books, and websites. The GPT-3 model, for example, was “trained” on a text set that included 8 million documents and over 10 billion words.
The conversation about ChatGPT so far has mainly focused on the effects it will have on the humanities. However, I think that humanities professors will be relatively better off compared to their faculty peers when A.I. is fully adopted by the university. The problem won’t be the mass unemployment of English, history, philosophy, classics, or theology professors; rather, the problem will be the mass unemployment of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and pre-professional faculty.
That is because the subjects taught by STEM and pre-professional faculty appear to be most likely to be replaced by A.I. in the future. These subjects require numerical critical thinking in making assessments about populations—something which A.I. does as well as, if not better, than humans now. For example, some A.I. programs have a better diagnostic accuracy than human doctors, and last year an A.I.’s stock picks generated a higher price return than the S&P 500. Some are currently discussing whether A.I. will replace engineers, nurses, and accountants in the near future.
Even more depressing for STEM and pre-professional faculty is the rise of alternative credentialing programs. Businesses including Google, Bank of America, GM, IBM, and Tesla have removed the college degree requirement for any positions in their companies. As A.I. improves its numerical and linguistic critical thinking skills, companies will likely incorporate A.I. into their pre-screening and training of employees. There is also great potential for growth in alternative credential agencies, which can certify students in certain skills, and much will likely be available free online. All these trends challenge the university’s primary status as a credentialer and signaler to employers of who can think and write.
This, in turn, raises the question of why parents should shell out tens of thousands of dollars every year for their children to attend college when they can learn free online, get accredited elsewhere cheaper and quicker, or be trained by their employer. For the elite universities—the Harvards, the Yales, the Stanfords—this is not likely to be a problem because the opportunity to network with children of the elite will outweigh any financial cost or lack of learning. But for those institutions in the mid- and low-tier, such as public regional comprehensive schools, A.I. poses an existential threat, especially if their funding model is based on STEM and pre-professional students.
If the news about A.I. is bad for schools that rely on their STEM and pre-professional programs, it could be good for those universities that have a clearly defined mission and identity rooted in liberal education. If liberal education is to study something for its own sake in order for us to reflect upon who we are and what our purpose in life is, then this can be best accomplished by studying the humanities. By reading and discussing literature, history, philosophy, and other traditions of the humanities, students learn the inherent value of liberal education—to be free from the demands of necessity and calls for utility in order to be connected to what authentically makes one a human being.
With A.I., the point of university education might shift. It is no longer about the acquisition of economic or critical skills, but about becoming a free and reflective human being. One enrolls in college because it is understood as an intrinsic good for human flourishing. If you want a job, go learn A.I. on the Internet.
Since the turn of the century, concerns about the place and relevance of liberal education in the American university have continued unabated. ChatGPT appears to put another nA.I.l in the coffin of liberal education; however, a closer look suggests it could be the key to liberal education’s resurrection. With employment demands, assessment requirements, and skill trA.I.ning gone, what is left for the university to do in the age of A.I.? To study things for their own sake—and only liberal education can provide that.