AI’s threat to writing

And why, as a result, writing might actually improve

Carsten Torgeson, Staff Writer

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI)—specifically OpenAI’s Chat GPT—may improve the quality of life for some, but it is also a weighty source of concern for many others. Though its potential to streamline many menial tasks is certainly impressive, I fear that AI is swiftly becoming the preferred method of shortcutting what makes education worthwhile: the process of learning. It is natural to avoid unnecessary struggle, but eventually we must contend with the fact that struggle itself is the impetus for learning. By removing that struggle and allowing AI to take over some of the less interesting components of education, we may be ushering in an era of academic stagnation.

As I write this, I am well aware of my perspective as an English major. I likely have a greater-than-average appreciation for language and a simultaneous awareness of my major’s perceived inutility in the modern world. I concede that my perspective may be more pessimistic than is warranted. Undoubtedly, AI is being used in creative and worthwhile ways. It is also true that even prior to the development of AI—which might make students feel that the skill of writing is not as important as it once was—the decline of the English major’s popularity was well documented. 

Nevertheless, AI’s arrival should be cause for concern for more than just English majors. AI is threatening to take over the quintessentially important craft of basic writing. Already, students are using AI to write their essays—and they’re getting away with it. Additionally, Google has already developed a new AI for similar purposes, which has cheekily been named “Bard.” Google has no delusions about its AI’s role, and neither should we.

I recognize that not everyone can have the same appreciation for writing that English majors do. For students whose fondness for the study of English is average or even nonexistent, AI does not seem like a threat. Instead, it is a useful tool. I am not so much of an alarmist that I cannot recognize its potential for utility. In careful hands, we, in fact, can put AI to admirable use. Nevertheless, I worry that for people who do not intrinsically believe in the importance of writing, AI’s path of least resistance may be far too tempting. This is to say that the same people who bemoaned having to write essays before AI will be quick to throw academic integrity out of the window—all to avoid engaging in the dull task of linking words together.

This would be a sad reality, for writing is essential regardless of your area of study. Writing is more than just linking words together—it is the manifested facilitation of thought. Good writers understand that to write is to solidify a thought in the world, where it can be contested by others. Because of this, good writing requires the consideration of more than just one’s own position—and in the process of discovering other perspectives, the writer begins to understand their own perspective better. Its worth is found just as much in its process as in its product. John Stewart Mills famously writes that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” Those that utilize AI to write essays are not only taking the path of least resistance and development, but are also depriving themselves of opportunities to understand others and themselves better.

Though a future where writing and subsequent critical thought done by AI is bleak, there is nevertheless cause for hope. Even before the birth of AI, there has been a decline in skilled writing that coincides with the shift in the job market from humanities to specialized majors—such as engineering. This is perhaps most visible at research and tech universities, including Case Western Reserve University, where the majority of students choose a STEM field to major in. While humanities departments have upheld the importance of writing, rigorous writing instruction seems to have been discarded in many other subjects. The soon-to-be obsolete SAGES courses, a requirement for all students, currently have both humanities and STEM students. This inherently leads to a mixture of students more passionate about writing and others who are frankly uninspired by their non-STEM classes. This results in classes spread thin, simultaneously trying to assist those with little basic writing skills and providing in-depth instruction for those with more advanced writing abilities. In an effort to keep grading consistent and fair, writing standards lower toward the worst student—which can often be the student putting in the least effort.

With this in mind, the rise of AI may in fact be a good thing—an opportunity to raise the bar again when it comes to writing. If AI can easily produce basic writing assignments that can pass as the writing of an uninspired student, perhaps grading will become more stringent. And if this happens, students will be forced to work on their writing ability to meet newly elevated standards. Furthermore, as a result of greater effort and better writing, classes can foster a greater appreciation of writing for those who haven’t experienced satisfaction in the subject.  

CWRU’s English department chair Dr. Walt Hunter recently published an article in The Atlantic about the shortcomings of AI poetry. Part of his argument is that a human’s lived and embodied experience in this world distinguishes a human’s writing from that of an AI. And it is true: AI—even the one ambitiously named Bard—cannot write in a rhetorically sound or literarily appealing manner. However, it is my cautious hope that with AI able to produce poor writing—which is nonetheless currently accepted as adequate—written language will become elevated by leaning into the lived experience that an AI can never have. In this way, perhaps AI will usher in an era of uniquely descriptive and literary writing across the board, as humans seek to differentiate their work from the manufactured writing of AI.