Analysis | What a Calculator Can Tell You About ChatGPT – The Washington Post

ChatGPT and other AI programs can instantly generate plausible-sounding prose. But they’ve also generated more than a bit of anguish among educators, who have discovered that lazy students turn to AI to save them.
Perhaps these applications will genuinely upend education, consigning student essays to the dustbin of history. But this isn’t the first time teachers have confronted a threat to traditional teaching methods. And the hysteria and alarm — never mind predictions of doom — never quite seem to pan out.
Consider, for example, the challenge confronted by English teachers in 1958. That year, an obscure employee at the Nebraska Book Company named Clifton Keith Hillegass stumbled across pamphlets summarizing the plot, themes and meanings of more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays.
They had been written by a Canadian publisher named Jack Cole. Hillegass, recognizing that US college and university students might use the guides to avoid reading the actual plays, immediately took out a loan and went into business for himself, producing a comparable set of pamphlets.
He eventually settled on a name for his creation: Cliff’s Notes. Later, he dropped the apostrophe, further infuriating the nation’s English teachers. One thing didn’t change, though: the trademark yellow and black diagonal lines that adorned every cover of each glorified cheat sheet.
Hillegass and his wife marketed the books on college campuses nationwide, gradually building a following. They moved beyond Shakespeare, offering guides to classics such as Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment. 
Each one concluded with a pious disclaimer: “The notes are not a substitute for the text itself or for the classroom discussion of the text, and the student who so attempts to use them is denying himself the very education that he is presumably giving his most vital years to achieve.”
The company’s marketing told a different story, with cheeky advertisements that beckoned to students with lines such as, “Shafted by Shaw? Mangled by Melville?” And for those who struggled with Shakespeare’s famous story of doomed lovers: “Juliet, baby, it’s easier with Cliff’s Notes.”
If the students loved them, the teachers did not. In 1965, one high school English teacher wrote to the New York Times: “These ‘Notes’ act as an aid, a begetter, of cheating. In time, what will become of reading, required or otherwise?” A college literature professor four years later declared the battle lost, claiming that the notes “keep the students from reading the books themselves.”
By this time, though, CliffsNotes had plenty of competition: Monarch Notes and Study Guides, Keystone Notes and a host of others. But Hillegass generally dominated the market for shortcut study guides, selling 10 million copies by 1970 at a dollar a pamphlet.
Yet something funny happened along the way. Teachers got better at identifying the symptoms of a paper that leaned heavily on this intellectual crutch; they also came up with assignments calculated to thwart the banal summaries available from Cliff and friends.
By the 1970s, another, more serious crisis hit education, this time in math classes. Early in the decade, the first hand-held pocket calculators reached the mass market. Though expensive — one model cost $170 in 1974, or about $1,100 in today’s dollars — growing numbers of students began buying and using them. Math homework would never be the same.
The debate over whether or not to permit students to use calculators broke into two predictable camps. One side claimed that the new devices would ruin students’ ability to grasp basic computational thinking, while the other lauded them for simplifying rote or tedious tasks.
In 1974, one math professor told the Washington Post that “it would be better if students had brains in their heads before they put them in their pockets,” while others warned against overreacting: “If you have to ban calculators to reach a mathematics class,” another professor said, “then what you’re teaching is trivial.”
The debate continued for the rest of the decade, with some arguing that calculators should be banned entirely.  
But dire predictions proved incorrect. Students still learned to do math by hand — now they had to “show their work” — while simultaneously using calculators on higher-order problems.
Teachers and professors have confronted plenty of challenges since this time. In the 1990s, off-campus firms began paying college students for their lecture notes and then sold them back to their classmates for a tidy profit. Now, students could afford to skip class, or so claimed anguished university administrators.
Some students did skip class — and still do. But whether those students do well in class is another matter. The very act of taking notes has been shown to commit material to memory in a way that passive reading can never do.
The deeper history of shortcuts underscores this larger point. Come test time, earlier generations that snapped up CliffsNotes and calculators discovered that it would be difficult to write a good paper or understand where they went wrong on a math problem.
Educators, rest assured: The same will likely happen with ChatGPT. Its ability to generate mediocre, error-filled prose effortlessly may well answer the needs of a student with an assignment due the next day. But that’s no substitute for the need to learn how to wield language effectively, whether in print or in person. That takes practice, a great deal of work and the guidance of phenomenal (and very human) teachers.  
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”
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