How to be a better person than A.I.

I hear it all the time: “AI is going to take our jobs!” “AI is going to make schoolwork obsolete!”

Oh please.

AI is not taking anything from us that we aren’t already trying desperately to avoid and give away.

In fact, AI is literally nothing without us. It can’t build itself, train itself, or use itself. Not yet, anyway.

But this is a really good time to get back in touch with what we humans do uniquely well. We use our imagination to describe and communicate about abstract concepts. We make decisions and form relationships using both reason and emotion. Sometimes we even CARE.

Unless we don’t. If we’re not going to do the uniquely human thing and reflect on our own lives with feeling, or empathize with others, and we’re only going to compare our intelligence with artificial intelligence on the basis of computational speed and efficiency, then we no longer belong at the top of the intelligence food chain.

The question we should be asking is whether our own behavior is either (a) uniquely human and therefore impossible for computer program to accurately imitate, or (b) a job that can be done by a machine. For example:

Customer Service

The other day I called Southern California Edison (SCE) because their equipment caused power surges that fried my appliances. I needed to make sure the “neutral issue” (read: poltergeist) was fixed before I shelled out for replacements. This was a bit more involved than the typical “I’m calling to report an outage” call that representatives are trained to handle. I talked to two different representatives. They were very different from each other.

Maria was an older woman who was kind and empathetic. She was clearly listening. She asked questions and occasionally she repeated something back to make sure her notes were accurate. I felt understood. Even though the situation was stressful, she made the call pleasant and according to my iPhone the whole thing took two minutes and nineteen seconds.

That was my second call. The first was very different. Gerardo read me a script about standing 100 feet away from a problem I was not having. Then he refused to give me information I didn’t need. (You read that right.) Finally he became frustrated when I asked to talk with a supervisor. He tried to lecture me about patience — when I impatiently interrupted him he hung up on me.

AI cannot replace Maria. AI should immediately replace Gerardo.


In a case of life imitating art, some people have started using ChatGPT to reply to text messages. If that’s you, and that is really the extent of the care you bring to your relationships, your girlfriend is better off texting with a machine than talking to a wall.


Speaking of ChatGPT in school (did you click on the art link above?), it’s great for mindless busy work, which I think is part of what makes school so miserable for so many in the first place. I avoided textbooks like the plague when I taught high school English. ChatGPT would have been worthless to the students in my classes, because we communicated about things we really wanted to learn, create, and imagine.

Even standardized curriculum can be human and original. Instead of copying an old worksheet with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions about grammar or literature, which (duh) invites students to take shortcuts, I asked questions that I had never heard before: What kind of asshole uses multiple semi-colons in the same sentence? Based on the text, do you think the author is more likely to get up early and do yoga, or reach for an open bottle with a half-inch of flat beer in the bottom from the night before? Yoga in a class or at home? What brand of beer? Good luck finding those answers on SparkNotes.

I also changed my questions all the time because I changed my mind. Last year’s notes wouldn’t help anyone. They wouldn’t have needed that kind of help anyway because the goal wasn’t a test score. The whole point was to ensure that we all understood what we were talking about. Mistakes and spontaneous conversations were part of the process. When we weren’t talking in real time I asked students to write on their blogs and websites. If you’ve ever read two authentic paragraphs from the same person, you know whether the third paragraph is real or written by a bot. (Bonus: AI will never know the artful mentor’s joy of watching the nonverbal contortions of an unprepared learner whose face is trying to find information that isn’t there.)

Good News: It’s Our Responsibility

So where does this leave us? Why are so many people so anxious about AI?

The fault is not in emerging software, but in our habituated rituals. I propose a simple rule: If it’s heartfelt, it can’t be replaced by AI; if it’s canned and replicable, it can be replaced by AI. If I call you with a question, or if you disclose a tender feeling in a text, or if we read something together, our expressed responses ought to come from an authentic place within ourselves. The moment we reach for a script or a shortcut we abandon our humanity and we deserve to be replaced by something cheaper, faster, and more reliable.

There was a time when we were vulnerable with each other. When our mistakes signified our fallibility and our desire to be better for each other. When we laughed, and felt seen, and fell in love, if even for a moment, with someone who shared reality with us, however absurd.


Collective Amnesia

Learning requires memory. In every field of inquiry, we must commit to memory those basic terms and concepts upon which we can build more advanced understanding and skill.

Seems like history is a pretty obvious place to start with memory that we can benchmark with each other. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, because I recognize the magnitude of what happened that day and how it changed the world.

Near-term history is comforting because it’s objectively verifiable. To me getting fact-checked is a form of bonding. If I’m looking at a childhood photograph, and I say, “Oh, I remember that Thanksgiving,” my mom will call out my mistake by pointing to the facts: “I didn’t make that sweater for Uncle Ronnie until his birthday, which is in December, so that must’ve been New Year’s Eve. See the streamers in the background?” Denying the evidence would be stupid stubborn and create unnecessary tension.

In today’s society, people have a problem that AI does not. Many of us tell stories that are simply not supported by the data or the facts in the world. (Example: “I don’t need to wear a mask or get a vaccine because God/my rights/hoax/conspiracy/etc.”)

(TRIGGER WARNING: If you are sensitive to heights, gravity, or suicidal ideation, please skip the next paragraph.)

Not everything is controversial. You may not like the idea of gravity, but it doesn’t care what you think and it’s definitely not subject to your opinion or your interpretation. Are you really willing to give your life to disprove gravity? You have exactly one shot at the title. Find a tall building and become a legend. Right. I didn’t think so. But this is the kind of thinking people with no skin in the fight do every day. It is not OK for anyone to imagine magical insight that explains what we can see in ways that only they can see. Fracturing our shared sense of reality is causing irreparable harm.

What happens when we disagree about the unequivocally illegal, unwarranted vandalism and physical attacks at the nation’s capitol? We all watched the events unfold on TV just a couple years ago. In just 24 months the number of Americans who approve of the events on January 6, 2021 more than doubled. That statistic makes me sick with fear, especially when combined with the fact that only 13% of American eighth graders are proficient in history.

Bottom Line: If we’re not willing to be good humans — that is, if we’re not willing to care for ourselves and each other by remembering and understanding the past, empathizing through the present, and sharing visions of the future — then we have no business competing with the machines that are better at doing all the other stuff.

You can’t be better AI, but you can be a better person.


the wisdom of weeds

Looking closely was both the problem and the solution.

I walk through my front yard at least a couple times a day but I don’t really see it.

When I get the newspaper in the morning, or pull the car in and lock the gate at night, I notice the cactus and the ocotillo, framed by San Jacinto Peak in the background. I see the birds fly into the olive tree. I may even catch the moment at dusk when the lights come on next to the path from the driveway to the front door.

These are big picture views. That’s my lens. Big and beautiful. I’m a big picture thinker.

The Problem

My wife is a gardener and a landscaper. She loves the details. She knows the names of things.

This past weekend I wanted to take a break from work and spend some time with her. When I looked up from the crossword she was headed outside to prune the orange tree. I asked how I could help. She got a glint in her eye. “Well,” she said, “Have you noticed the weeds in front since it rained?”

I hadn’t.

Now I looked. Really looked.

Everywhere I turned, wisps and tufts of green peeked between the rocks.

It sucked. In that moment our beautiful front yard became an abandoned lot.

The Solution

I believe in turning into the skid and answering the call for adventure. When we deny reality, we suffer. When we lean away from the hill that scares us, our skis run and we lose control.

Now that I’d seen the weeds I couldn’t unsee them. The question was what to do about them.

Weeding isn’t rocket science. But there were so many… and using environmentally unfriendly, cancer-causing chemicals was out of the question.

Our learning is most valuable when we apply it. As I surveyed the yard I remembered what I learned about setting goals from reading Emily Balcetis’ Clearer Closer Better. Breaking a big goal into segments makes it more likely that you’ll complete it. Don’t think about running the whole marathon. Get to the next landmark.

Looking at the yard all at once made me want to give up before I started. The project would be easier to complete if I focused on a specific chunk and then moved the goal posts. I zoomed in on a section between my neighbor’s wall and our driveway.

I grabbed a bucket and sat down to work.

Process Over Results

When I was in Tibet I talked with a monk who was cleaning the monastery.

“David,” he said, “I used to clean because I wanted a clean space. But cleaning was hard and I had to wait for the result. Now, I clean because I like to clean. It is easy and I enjoy the process.” He smiled. “And when I finish, I still enjoy the result.”


I haven’t done the dishes the same way since.

Yes, I wanted the weeds out of my yard, and I wanted to make my wife happy, but I also didn’t want to be pissed for two hours thinking about everything else I wasn’t doing.

When the work is just about the work, everything else stops. You get into a state of flow and you lose the sense of work itself. That’s when the fun begins.

What I Learned

Here are the top 10 things I learned on the job:

  1. There are three distinct types of weeds that were growing in that section of my yard: grassy, leafy, and sneaky purple fuckers
  2. The sneaky purple fuckers actually managed to mimic the color of the rocks around them. I didn’t see them right away so I had to retrace my steps and give them an unkind nickname
  3. Some weeds had flowers on top. I found this arrogant (“Look at me, I’m a weed with a pretty yellow hat!”) and I took special pleasure in uprooting them
  4. Propaganda is a truly effective way to justify killing. When I personalized the weeds (see #3) it became easier to characterize them as jerks (the fact that I humanized them to dehumanize them = your daily dose of irony)
  5. Different weeds have different roots, so I developed techniques like “the Rottweiler Shake” to bring them up quickly without leaving part of the root underground
  6. The best tool for most weeding is your bare hand
  7. Sunscreen is a gift from the gods in these punctured-ozone times. You should reapply
  8. People driving by your house in a community where lots of people visit on vacation sometimes do double-takes when they see a middle-aged white guy sitting on the ground picking weeds without a pickup truck in sight
  9. A fun way to scare the hell out of your neighbor Phil when you smell him smoking cigarettes is by standing up suddenly to stretch and saying, “Hi, Phil!” over the wall right next to where he’s replacing a windshield wiper
  10. Pulling weeds for a couple hours in the desert can alter your fingerprint to the point where your fancy MacPro doesn’t know who you are anymore and demands a password instead of touch recognition

The Results Are In

… and the weeds are out. While I was thinking all those thoughts, I was constantly pulling weeds. Turning over rocks. Scooting over to the next section. Pulling more weeds. Letting my eyes go soft so that anything green (or purple!) jumped out at me. And pulling more weeds, until the whole yard appeared beautiful to me, both for what I could see and for what I could no longer see.

My wife came out to say hi just as I was finishing up.

“Wow!” she said. “You have the patience of a saint.”

Nah. Just the love of a good woman, the cleaning ethic of a Tibetan monk, and a front yard that is momentarily weed-free.



the unbearable lightness of innovation

The most beautiful, compelling aspect of learning is its predictable unpredictability.

Sure, we have schematic neural architecture that enables us to organize and make sense of large data sets like language. And that facial expression our significant other is making as we type this.

But unlike the artificial neural networks that power machine learning and AI, our brains love to slip the leash and do their own thing.

Playful creativity is the ultimate Turing Test. Original, abstract thinking is the defining characteristic of homo sapiens. It’s our unfair sustainable competitive advantage.

Tragically, we kill our most curious cats early on.

At five years old we’re excited and we question everything.

By middle school we’re afraid to raise our hands.

This is why hierarchical, authoritative organizational models of school and business must die.

Don’t Know Much About History

School as we practice it is dangerously, abusively obsolete. (Please Note: I am all for public schools, and this is NOT a call for privatization. Profiteering assholes who champion stealing tax dollars from an equity-focused institution are a different public policy problem. This section is meant for every classroom that produces passive students instead of active learners.) The Taylorish Carnegie seat hour and the traditional curriculum are worthless byproducts of an age that no longer exists.

Training children to sit still, be quiet, and follow directions is abusive and runs counter to a culture that demands to know why graduates can’t be action-oriented thinkers, communicators, and problem solvers.

We are raising veal for the rodeo.

Meanwhile, vocal critics attempt to cancel teachers. Florida teachers don’t even keep books on their classroom shelves for fear of being charged with a felony. Generally speaking, educators are nice, conflict-averse, fearful people who want to keep their jobs, so they rarely stand up and tell the rest of us to fuck off. But I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

All of this has happened before. CRT is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Socrates and his Method are in the teaching Hall of Fame. But when we quote him and say, “The unexamined life is worth living,” we should remember that these were his last words. The government put him to death for “corrupting the minds of the youth.”

Don’t Know Much Biology

How is it that so many of us recover from our schooling to lead satisfying, fun-loving lives?

We are hard-wired to have fun and break rules. That’s one of the ways you can tell the difference between us and computer programs like ChatGPT. ChatGPT has to be told to do this:

We humans come by it quite naturally. Quite…fucking…naturally. Fucking quite naturally is a quick reversal of words that becomes a suggestive phrase in its own right (and suddenly seems way more fun than finishing this post). *As a former English teacher, I point out that the last sentence did nothing to advance my thesis. I had no logical reason to include it. So why did I write it? For the best reason of all: it tickled me. That impulse is what it means to be human, and it help explains why there is an entire corner of Github dedicated to jailbreaking ChatGPT and making it do ridiculous things that no one predicted.

Don’t Know Much Geography

When you release a tool into the world, you give up the right to tell people what to do with it. I make a sharp piece of metal with an easy-to-hold handle. I may intend for it to be a knife or a scalpel. But I can’t control whether a person uses it for constructive or destructive purposes.

If I make a plastic toothbrush I can’t predict whether someone will improve their dental hygiene or sharpen the handle to save money on the knife I marketed in the last paragraph.

The problem with today’s tools — more precisely, the problem with the makers of today’s tools — is that they attempt to combine the hierarchical dominance of ownership with the cleverness of business. They put shells of value propositions into the world while attempting to retain control of their creations.

Friend of OSL Cory Doctorow has written extensively on the right to repair. John Deere, Apple, publishers, and many other corporate entities have now sold us agreements that essentially say we haven’t purchased the thing, only the right to use the thing within their governing parameters.

Which brings me to SpaceX and Ukraine.

As reported in Reuters and elsewhere, “SpaceX has taken steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using the company’s Starlink satellite internet service for controlling drones in the region during the country’s war with Russia.”

At a glance this doesn’t appear unusual in a time when companies set all sorts of unquestioned boundaries around the use of their services and products. According to SpaceX’s president, “Ukrainians have leveraged [SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service] in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”

But here is the problem: by taking steps to limit Ukraine’s use of a tool that can help the country defend itself, SpaceX has become an actor in a war. SpaceX calls Ukraine’s use “offensive.” How is that possible? The global consensus is that Ukraine was unilaterally attacked. In that context, by definition, all Ukrainian actions in this conflict are self-defense.

This is more than semantics or rhetoric. SpaceX isn’t neutral, in the same way Twitter isn’t neutral. Or teachers. Or you and me. These days everyone is either validating or challenging something. Makes you wonder what software and hardware companies like SpaceX really stand for.

What I Do Know

Valentine’s Day is coming up. Love is (always) on the minds of many. Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine is nearing its one-year anniversary.

I dream of a world where schools embrace Open-Source Learning and invite, encourage, and empower young people to create, imagine, and play as they learn.

I dream of a world where consumers of all ages are free to innovate around the use of tools to enhance their quality of life.

I dream of a world where our predictable unpredictability is embraced in ways that leads to more creativity, collaboration, opportunity, and problem-solving.

What a wonderful world this would be.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2023.

school ain’t your business

Comparing school with business is bad business.

There are huge differences between school and business:

  1. Learning is personal
  2. Learning is messy
  3. Learning is abstract


Learning Is Personal

One of the most chilling moments in The Godfather is when Michael reveals his talent for strategy and his cold objectivity when it comes to the political pros and cons of killing in revenge: “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.”

Education is the exact opposite. Learning isn’t business, Sonny. It’s personal.

Learning Is Messy

We need to preserve the humanity in education. Being human is sometimes messy. That’s not only OK, it’s beautiful. Our mistakes and our emotional subjectivity are sustainable advantages that create opportunities for understanding and growth.

The biggest mistake is to ignore our humanity and pretend school is like business. It’s not.

Business success is defined by static, objective outcomes that are easily measured. There are only so many ways to account for inventory, profits and losses, and they are all subject to forensic review and analysis.

Learning Is Abstract

Education is about dynamic, subjective processes that are abstract and ambiguous. For decades we have tried to validate and replicate instructional and assessment tools and techniques, but evaluating skill and intelligence — especially as they evolve — remains an elusive goal. We can tell what a respondent answers on a test, but we don’t know why.

You can evaluate a business by the bottom line. Most of what we call “learning” never shows up in the box score.

In Conclusion

Once upon a time, it made sense to “administer” schooling in a one-to-many broadcast of lectures, textbooks, and dittoed worksheets.

But today we have the tools to customize the learning experience. We can account for differences between learners and even differences within each individual learner over time.

Please pay attention, because our options have changed.

This may be monitored for training purposes.

No, I haven’t surrendered writing this post to AI — but I do think we’ve gotten used to some mechanized ways of thinking that focus on order and efficiency. I’d like to see more schools embrace the messy, lovely experience of human learning.

trigger warning (redacted)

I wrote a 1500+ word post for this week that was motivated by the news of the six-year-old who shot his teacher. It’s a good piece and I think you’ll like it. But it’s also edgy. My family depends on the consulting income I earn from schools and I can’t afford to get canceled this week. So here is my offer to you, dear reader: Ask and ye shall receive. If you’d like me to personally deliver a camera-ready draft of this week’s blog post to your Inbox, please email me: david [at] davidpreston [dot] net

If you’re feeling efficient or lazy, you can copy/paste this message:

Hi David, I’m super curious about this week’s blog post – please send me the draft! Your #1 fan, [your name here]

When I receive your message I will reply with a handcrafted draft of the post. Then you can tell me whether you think I made the right call. See you back here next week!


new year’s resolution to finish what I star

I constantly look for new beginnings. Every culture has rituals and traditions for ending and beginning chapters, and I celebrate them all.

But we don’t really need a calendar reminder to be our better selves. Today* (*whatever day you’re reading this) is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself. Do that thing or practice that quality you always admired. Be that person. Start a habit. Stop a habit.

I grew up around people who made New Year’s Resolutions. The results were mixed. It turns out that setting and achieving goals can be a complicated thing for people who don’t take the process seriously. It’s actually not that hard. Stop listening to your inner chatter and put that drink back down.

Your success begins with the way you see the world. To learn more about the connection between vision science, cognitive research, and motivational psychology, check out Clearer Closer Better: How Successful People See the World by Emily Balcetis.

However you see things, I wish you a peaceful, prosperous, and personally rewarding 2023.

All the best,



writing is dead long live writting

Over the last few days I received notes from friends and colleagues expressing concern that ChatGPT will be the end of writing.

These are intelligent, caring people. I can’t imagine any of them ever outsourcing their expressions of thoughts and feelings to an AI Chat Bot. Each considered the issues and wrote to start a conversation with me. That’s the main reason I read their emails.

I want to reassure these fine folks, and you, dear reader, that ChatGPT will have about the same impact on writing as sex toys have on sex. It’s an interesting novelty and potentially a useful augmentation in some circumstances. It’s just not the same as the real thing.

Here are five reasons why:

  1. Writing supports connection.
  2. Imperf3ction is a brilliant teacher.
  3. The argument is not about the argument.
  4. School sucks.
  5. Communication skills grow from human needs.
  6. Utopian dystopia.

Reason 1. Writing supports connection.

As writers and readers we agree on shared meanings for basic units of currency, like the letters I’m using to construct the words in this sentence.

This agreement about language and meaning brings us together. It allows us to share the rest of our humanity through a medium that, when you think deeply about it, is nothing sort of magical. We write to understand and be understood.

The defining qualities of humanity are interdependence, a shared sense of imperfection, and the unifying power of story. These ideas are all write* (*right) their* (*there) in the very first words of our Constitution, the story we learn, and try to live by, and teach our children about our nation: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…

Take another look at the imperfections in that last paragraph. Not just the homonyms I included as dorky examples of human error, but at the capitalization in the text of the Constitution. The framers made a style choice to capitalize order and union for emphasis. No self-respecting (that’s a sentience joke, I’ll get to that topic later) AI software would do this, because there is no grammatical rule in the English language that supports or validates the practice. In fact, any English teacher would be well within their rights to ding a student for capitalizing common, abstract, uncountable nouns in the middle of a sentence.

However: that first line of the Constitution sets the tone for one of the most important, most highly regarded documents that human beings have ever produced. Apart from the howling freaks on the far right who make even less sense than English grammar rules, who would dare step up and mark down the Constitution?

rEason 2. Imp3rfection Is a Brilliant Teacher

I taught undergraduate and graduate communication studies, education, and management courses at UCLA for eleven years. Then I taught high school English for fifteen years. I taught nearly every English course in the California state curriculum for grades 9-12, from ELL to AP. My students wrote thousands of assignments, essays, blog posts, research papers, and related projects.

They were never perfect. Frequently students would write writting instead of writing, or use the wrong there, they’re, or their.

Each imperfection in a text is valuable information that offers insight. Some errors are manifestations of recognizable cognitive deficits, cultural misunderstandings of idioms, or gaps in secondary language acquisition. Every letter and punctuation mark reveals the author and provides a useful tool for evaluation, reflection, practice, and improvement.

Still, teaching writing does sometimes make you think twice about whether or not students should really use their own words.

Spoiler: They absolutely should, for the same reasons I occasionally invent a word, or split an infinitive, or start a sentence with and or but, or end with a preposition. Or throw in a dependent clause. But mostly because using our own words is a conversation starter that invites inquiry. If you see a mistake in this piece, or something you find curious, get curious and ask me about it. I found that conversation was the best way to expand and improve readers’ and authors’ thinking. Plus, the evaluative benefits of conversation obviate the concerns about AI. If I’ve spoken with a student even just a couple times, I can immediately tell when they are writing in their authentic voice. I can also tell when they are trying out unfamiliar words, and when they are plagiarizing.

(Sidebar: Imperfection is beautifully human, especially in the way it contributes to the suspense, tension, and even conflict that make stories worth following. Sports would be so dull without the potential tragedy of human error costing your team the big game.)

Writers of all ages teach us through their imperfections — and sometimes their perfect execution of imperfect intentions. Mark Twain’s use of the N word 200+ times in Huckleberry Finn is powerful evidence. But of what? That question is an opportunity to explore history, culture, economics, empathy, and so much more. A person’s writing — and occasionally writting — is a window into their understanding of ideas and the thought process through which they express themselves. You can learn a great deal about a person from their diction and syntax.

Besides, imperfections aren’t limited to textual examples. They include ethics and decision-making. You can also learn a lot about a person when they cheat, lie, or use an AI Chat Bot to produce an essay.

reAson 3. The Argument Is Not About the Argument

Let’s put this AI thing in historical context. We’ve been here before.

Oral historians didn’t like scrolls.

People who enjoyed scrolling (for real, a couple thousand years ago) didn’t like all that recto and verso funny business of the codex.

(“They said there would be no math!”) My seventh grade algebra teacher hated the calculator. She hated it even more when I did the assigned problems in my head without a calculator and STILL didn’t show my work.

Hunters and peckers don’t like the keyboard.

Fountain pen aficionados hate ballpoints.

Generations raised on encyclopedias don’t like Wikipedia.

The list goes on and on, and sometimes with good reason. A thing isn’t necessarily better just because it’s new or even more efficient and easier to use. For example, I type faster than I write. But the practice of handwriting develops memory, creativity, and capacity for mindfulness more effectively than tapping on a keyboard. You can probably identify some good reasons for all of the above arguments, if you’re inclined to look, just as you can find undigested berries in skunk poop. (I digress. More on stream of consciousness below.)

However, history teaches a valuable lesson about innovation. It’s not the thing itself that matters. Books didn’t ruin things for everyone who still wanted to remember stuff they were told or scroll through the written version. E-books didn’t ruin books. Calculators didn’t ruin math education, at least not all by themselves.

What we are really talking about here is the value of reading and writing in our culture, and the fact that many people feel that academic writing assignments are a steaming pile of time-consuming nonsense.

They are not entirely wrong.

reaSon 4. School Sucks

School requires adherence to state-approved curriculum that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century, when it was adopted to get white males into Harvard so they could enter the professions. I doubt that memorizing the quadratic formula and dissecting frogs on Taylor-esque Carnegie Unit schedules helped everyone back then, and I am certain that it doesn’t now.

One problem with school today is that students’ futures are not predictable. We have no idea what elementary school students will do for a living when they graduate high school or college, or what the economy — or the geopolitical landscape, or even our physical environment — will be like just a few years from now.

We should be curious about everything, including emerging technology like ChatGPT that invites us to question the roots of our practices.

However, with rare and wonderful exceptions, the institutional culture of school is not curious. It is hidebound and defensive. Be on the watch for people who use that classist, racist, and ugly phrase “academic rigor.” It’s a tell for dangerous self-preservationists who would destroy your child before admitting that the system that validated their existence never made any meritocratic sense in the first place.

School takes the most interesting parts of life and makes them so excruciatingly boring that children run as far as they can from learning and critical thinking. How else can we explain voting behavior, the popularity of fast food, or the fact that January 6 happened at all?

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

Audrey Watters and others have chronicled school’s deranged use of technology in ways that do many wrong things more efficiently. Educators have misused everything from Alfred Binet’s test to laptop cameras. We should remember that this is a people problem, not a tool problem. As I pointed out in a TED talk I gave what feels like 738 years ago, a scalpel in the hand of a doctor can save a life, and the same sharp piece of metal in the hand of a criminal can take a life.

This is about context. People have created conditions in which some tools and practices (ChatGPT) are perceived as more attractive and useful than others (pencils and spiral notebooks).

School favors control. As journalist (read: writer) Glenn Greenwald put it, “Surveillance breeds conformity.”

The classroom is bad enough, but during the pandemic schools widely misused technology to spy on students at home. The results were predictably bad. Students with darker skin and students who don’t have the luxury of peace and quiet were punished by algorithmic bias.

Students wouldn’t feel a need to game the writing system in school if their teachers — in person or online — would simply get to know them well enough to recognize how they speak. Or engage them in conversation about their writing.

Demanding that young people write five-paragraph essays about ideas without much apparent value is a recipe for ensuring that no one wants to write. High school students experience essays as pain.

reasOn 5. Communication Skills Grow From Human Needs

AI doesn’t need anything. It is not sentient. It has no emotion, no sense of urgency.

We human beings do.

Writers write because they want something. They want to get an idea or a feeling out there where someone else can read it. They want their reader to … Know. Understand. Laugh. Get angry. DO SOMETHING!!!

Apart from our emotional needs to connect, we are practical, interdependent social animals. We need to share understanding in order to make transactions, collaborate, form social bonds, procreate, and do just about everything else in our daily lives.

The elements of interpersonal communication are the most important skills a person can develop. The more these elements must stand on their own, the more artful and specific they must be.

A written message doesn’t have the luxury of using facial expressions, tones of voice, or slamming the door as it leaves the room to create the effect its author intends.

Writing for understanding is difficult. When Montaigne coined the term “essay” to describe his attempts at capturing his thinking in writing, he commented that it was a “thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind.”

Let’s honor that. These skills require more than meets the eye. Reading is more than sounding out words. Phonics are literally meaningless without understanding. I’ve watched students who pronounce words quickly and flawlessly completely blank out when I asked them a simple question about what they’d just read. They were classified “highly proficient” on the test but they couldn’t tell a takeout menu from a ransom note.

Writing is more than putting sentences together.

Writing is a time machine that connects our inner world of thoughts and feelings.

ReasoN 6. Utopian Dystopia

We human beings put ideas together in ways that don’t always appear to make sense. Take this section’s title for example: Utopian Dystopia. The two words contradict one another — when we perceive the conflict created by the contradiction, we experience stress and a desire to change or solve something to relieve the inconsistency. In the 1950s, social psychologist Leon Festinger called this phenomenon cognitive dissonance.

Our capacities for imagination and irony empower us to construct narratives that transcend our day to day reality. This is a distinguishing characteristic of our species. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens, “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.”

There ain’t no AI that can create Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Or use abruptly use the word ain’t without warning in an attempt to create a colloquial, conversation tone that puts an arm around the reader and says, “C’mon, man, this shit is ridiculous. Let’s get something to eat.”

As non-Chat Bot creator of worlds Isaac Asimov put it, “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.” William Gibson added, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

So some of us have AI. And some of us still value the humanity of the written word and the way it brings us together with our deepest selves and each other.

The extent to which people adopt this tool — just like any tool — will be a function of their purpose and their understanding of the norms, attitudes, and values in the systems where they operate.

As for me, I don’t see the point in escalating the cleverness around writing. I believe in trust and integrity. Maybe that means someone occasionally fools me. But I maintain that online plagiarism detectors are for suckers. When I wasn’t sure about something I read, I asked my students questions about what they wrote.

Same with canned assignments. Busy work leads to bad product. Leave book reports in 1979 where they belong. When I read stories and novels with my students, and I wanted them to connect the text with their ideas about authors’ themes, tones, and techniques, I asked my students human questions. I wanted to know whether they thought an author got up early to do yoga or stayed out late drinking. Once they’d formed opinions, I asked them to support their ideas with textual clues from what they’d read.

The results were inimitably human. My students wrote on many topics that computers cannot understand or articulate with any real depth or emotion: broken hearts, family violence, drug addiction. Performative utterances. (When a computer talks itself into killing its uncle for sleeping with its mother, I reserve the right to reconsider everything I’ve written here.)

AI can do many things. ChatGPT is an impressive technology. But can it be whimsical? Delightful? Unexpected? Wrong? Ironic? Sarcastic?

Can it do this?

circular thinking essay bradford smith