Classical educators are used to acting in counter-cultural ways though with all of the stresses and none of the media accolades and pop culture celebrations that other “countercultural” movements have historically received. They are used to pushing back “against the age as hard as it pushes against [them],” as Flannery O’Connor famously wrote. In an interesting twist, classical educators are facing a new cultural situation in which technological advancement is simultaneously the farthest step yet from classical education, but a step which classical educators may be uniquely prepared to navigate: AI.
Artificial intelligence is being adopted into more and more aspects of life–not just as a writing assistant, but in cars, in homes, and in any physical object that can plausibly connect to the internet for any reason, practical or silly. This has obvious implications for school writing assignments. But it also has cultural implications many may not be expecting. It is possible (even profitable!) for our most mundane tasks and experiences to be tracked, monitored, and monetized. Your physical movements, your spending, and your internet searches, obviously, will be tracked and analyzed, but so will your eating habits (cameras that can tell just how long that food stays in your fridge and create your grocery list), your inclinations (just how long did your eyes hover on that seductive ad, even though you didn’t click on it?), or your cleanliness (as your vacuum cleaner decides when your house needs to be swept, and will drive around doing that while mapping your home layout to send to HQ). Some AI, or, really, many separate AIs, will be watching you, tracking you, and trying to influence your behaviors. Your toaster will be essentially haunted.
Actually, much of that is happening already. Flannery O’Conner also wrote about the “Christ-haunted South,” and that such “ghosts can be fierce and instructive.” The coming AI-in-the-home, watching and influencing us subconsciously certainly feels, if not “Christ-haunted,” at least like it will have some supernatural aspects to it, although we cope with this by calling it “convenience” rather than “haunting.” Many experts will say that they can see the fact of AI advancements as they work on them, conjuring up new abilities, although they can’t understand quite how they’re happening. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted in a piece about our current times and C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, that,
… the idea that technological ambition and occult magic can have a closer-than-expected relationship feels quite relevant to the strange era we’ve entered recently — where Silicon Valley rationalists are turning “postrationalist,” where hallucinogen-mediated spiritual experiences are being touted as self-care for the cognoscenti, where U.F.O. sightings and alien encounters are back on the cultural menu, where people talk about innovations in A.I. the way they might talk about a golem or a djinn.
Knowing the plot of That Hideous Strength, this description feels both applicable and a bit terrifying–but instructive too. Whenever I am around Alexa or her cousins, I find the presence a little unsettling. (And yes, I know I carry one in my pocket most of the time too). We are beginning to invite many minor forms of Alexa into more homes and public spaces, to cultural consequences we cannot really predict or control. (We are also being pushed to this–trying to buy an appliance or a car that is not connected to the internet or full of electronic components gets harder every year).
Others are more sanguine about AI’s prospects for us. Imagine having an AI sidekick (an “assistant”) with which you are provided at a young age to help with homework and scheduling tasks, and which also perfectly remembers clearly and literally everything that ever happened to you. An interactive commonplace book, it remembers every witty or interesting observation you record. But also: every embarrassment, preserved in amber. All your youthful cringe. Everything about exes that you told it at the time. There is a reason death and forgetting are blessings. (For you Dune fans, there is a reason prescience and immortality are curses).
Economist Tyler Cowen writes, “Many parents may be reluctant to let their kids become attached to an AI. But I predict that most families will welcome it. For one, parents will be able to turn off the connection whenever they wish. Simply clicking a button is easier than yanking an iPad out of a kid’s grasp.”
Of course, many American parents will welcome this, but the practical question immediately arises: What parents will actually try to limit this? Leaving aside the fact that we could just not provide smartphones or AI assistants, we can also “turn off the connection” to smart phones just as easily as Cowen suggests, right now. Most parents don’t do much of this either. My concerns about AI in schools are not just about surveillance, but about the ways it will, for example, hinder student creativity and perseverance (Why would you ever struggle through writer’s block when an AI can just repurpose old ideas for you?), and affect teachers (Future teacher: “Chat GPT: Please generate a quiz about Huck Finn for me. In fact, please generate a summary too. I haven’t read it. Who has the time?”).
But maybe there is an opportunity for classical educators in our coming haunted-toaster future. Society certainly seems to be re-paganizing. The much-maligned medieval world was considered “haunted” but medieval culture actually accomplished a great deal. C.S. Lewis writes in the Discarded Image, “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place’.” Much AI-generated “art” looks like it came straight from the Inferno or Heironymous Bosch. Classical educators know how to address that imagery.
So maybe we are becoming more medieval, but maybe that is an opportunity to repair some societal ills. Maybe classical educators, to the extent they have knowledge of and respect for medieval accomplishments, will have some insights into how to keep AI “in the right place” in the home and school (which may mean banishing these demons as much as possible). If that leads to new cathedrals, so much the better. But right now, it looks like we’re headed into the pagan woods. There be dragons. There be demons. There be toasters, watching.