Opinion
Classroom Technology Opinion

Teachers Aren’t ‘Silicon Valley’s Lackeys’

Our job should be to question whether generative AI serves our students’ humanity
By Jack Bouchard — April 22, 2024 4 min read
Doomscrolling concept. Students reading bad news, negative information in internet, social media, scrolling smartphone screen. Anxiety and stress from online surfing.
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I very proudly teach a useless subject at a high school in the South Bronx: English. Please do not argue that English is useful because it develops communication skills, which employers are known to value. If I wanted to teach employable writing, I would coach students in writing grant proposals and emails, not short stories or memoirs. When a child, frustrated at the opacity of a Toni Morrison novel, wants to know when she will ever use this, I reply, “You might never! And that’s OK, because you’re a human being and you have more important things to be than just useful.”

As educators respond to the rise of artificial intelligence, we seem to be forgetting how important the useless parts of being human are. We are fixated instead on the utilitarian aspects of education, particularly on forming students to thrive in an AI-augmented workplace. I was recently forwarded a unit plan on ethical AI use that proclaimed, “Students who are well-versed in AI tools … will be better equipped to thrive in the workforce of the future.” I wondered if the unit author gave any thought to how or if these machines could help students be good humans. It seems we are stumbling over ourselves to prepare children for a world shaped by Silicon Valley’s inventions, when our first duty is to support students’ human development.

It’s fine to worry about what skills help students make a living. But life is about more than just work. We are all seeking to know the truth about the world and ourselves. We wrestle with questions about living well, coping with loss, and our very identities. These parts of living raise questions that linger with us when we can’t sleep, after the workday is over. It’s an educator’s job, in all subjects, to help students develop these parts of themselves.

Sometimes, the humanizing power of education becomes evident in students who do everything they can to avoid the classroom. One young man comes to mind who was in the hallway more often than in class. The first time I told the class to write a memoir about something that mattered to them, he put his head down. That gesture suggested to me that he was uncomfortable choosing his own subject.

When we conferenced later, he revealed some things about himself: He loved boxing and felt that it channeled his anger in a positive direction. Together, we asked some questions to build his memoir. Did he know where his anger came from? Could he think of moments where it controlled him or when he could control it? When did he see that boxing was changing him? Writing a memoir invited him to examine his life.

I imagine few of my students will make a living as professional writers, much like math and science students are unlikely to become mathematicians or scientists. Writing, however, gave this student a chance to meet himself. That experience won’t help him on the job, not directly anyway, but that’s OK. The working world is designed to create profit, not cultivate the mind and spirit. We should be nurturing students’ growing selves before they need to start paying rent.

It’s fine to worry about what skills help students make a living. But life is about more than just work.

We must remember that tech companies want different things for our children from what we do. Social media companies primarily think of our kids as consumers. To them, they’re more valuable as eyeballs focused on a screen, wrapped up in distraction; they’re more valuable if they scroll forever and never pause to look within. In a telling moment a few years ago, a whistleblower revealed that Meta had conducted an internal study that revealed their products had a negative impact on teen mental health, particularly in young women who spent a lot of time on Instagram. A lawsuit alleges Meta ignored the study. When it was made public, Mark Zuckerberg minimized the results, even as many studies on the topic replicated them. I’d argue that, to Meta and many other social media companies, the revenue that teenagers bring in was more important than their well-being.

Research reflects that the rise in smartphone and social media use has correlated with the severe decline in teen mental health in the last two decades. That rise also displaced time spent reading. Many things that teachers attempt to build up in young people the tech companies could destabilize for the sake of profit.

Generative AI will not have the same effect on young people as smartphones and social media. Generative AI instead will change our sense of what it means to create. Chatbot peddlers are eager for people to agree that their inventions can make creative work more efficient—because their companies will profit that way. Creation, however, is central to what we educators ask students to do. Their stumbling efforts at creating content, whether that’s in a memoir or a lab report, are their first steps to being mature human beings who seek to know themselves and their world. Educators should not be asking, “How can our students learn to be employable in an AI world?” We might ask that question if we were tech workers, but we aren’t. We should be asking if this new sense of “creation” is one that serves our students.

Teachers and schools are not Silicon Valley’s lackeys. Our job should be to question whether generative AI serves our students’ humanity. If we think the answer is no, then we say should no to the technology. Let’s put concerns about competing in the workforce aside. For now, the idea that generative AI will reshape the world is marketing, not a certainty.

If our students really do have to inhabit a world shaped by these machines, they won’t just need to work in an AI world. They will need to understand themselves and seek the truth in an AI world. That is a tougher task.

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