Education, AI, and Narcissism

Andy Kessler of the WSJ describes some conversations he has had with the founder/CEO of the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.”

Three years ago, Sal Khan and I spoke about developing a tool like the Illustrated Primer from Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” It’s an education tablet, in the author’s words, in which “the pictures moved, and you could ask them questions and get answers.” Adaptive, intuitive, personalized, self-paced—nothing like today’s education. But it’s science-fiction.

Last week I spoke with Mr. Khan, who told me, “Now I think a Primer is within reach within five years. In some ways, we’ve even surpassed some of the elements of the Primer, using characters like George Washington to teach lessons.” What changed? Simple—generative artificial intelligence. Khan Academy has been working with OpenAI’s ChatGPT since before its release last December.

In the novel, the main character Nell asks about ravens, and “the picture zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. ‘R A V E N,’ the book said. ‘Raven. Now, say it with me.’ ‘Raven.’ ”

Later, she asks, “What’s an adventure?” and “both pages filled with moving pictures of glorious things: girls in armor fighting dragons with swords, and girls riding white unicorns through the forest, and girls swinging from vines, swimming in the blue ocean, piloting rocket ships through space. . . . After awhile all of the girls began to look like older versions of herself.”

I admire what Khan Academy is trying to do for education..which, in America at least, needs all the help it can get…and I’m sure that AI has a lot of potential in this field. But a couple of things are bothering me here.

First, that Raven sequence. Is it really a good idea to teach reading with all those dramatic visual effects? Won’t kids later be disappointed when attempting to read anything that doesn’t include such effects?  Indeed, I believe such concerns were raised, years ago, about Sesame Street.

Perhaps more importantly, consider that line After awhile all of the girls began to look like older versions of herself.  Really?  Do we want to bring up people who are so focused on themselves that they can’t identify with even fictional characters who don’t look like themselves?  Might be of different ethnicity, difference gender, different age.  I thought the development such broader perspective was supposed to be one of the purposes of education in general and of literature in particular.

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’  Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves.  There do seem to be a lot of people today whose interests are largely restricted to themselves and to the endless struggle for power.
Maybe I’m overreacting to the potential harm of this kind of AI-based customization…perhaps it’s simply a cute trick which will help get students involved in learning rather than on random scrolling and status-measurement on their phones.  But I see so much appeal to narcissism in so many types of communications these days…”The price YOU deserve”…”Here’s YOUR weather”…”Let’s check YOUR money–the Dow closed today at…”….and the narcissism is coupled with increasing pressure for group rather than individual identity…not “Our Customers” or “Our African-American Customers” but “Members of Our African-American Community.”
What do you think?
See also my related post Classics and the Public Sphere.

12 thoughts on “Education, AI, and Narcissism”

  1. May have mentioned this before, but we didn’t get a TV in the house until the youngest was around the middle of elementary school. We did have a lot of books, and started readying stories out loud for entertainment when the weather was too bad for outdoor play. The school teachers always commented on the attention span and imagination our children displayed.
    If TV provides a series of ready-made images, stunting the child’s own imagination growth, then it would be easy for AI to have the same effect. Perhaps the same could be said for curiosity.

  2. Frank…I.remember reading about some kid’s reaction when tv first began replacing radio. He said he liked radio better because the pictures were better.

    David F

  3. In a letter to yesterday’s WSJ, a woman says that she grew up in a home with books (except Classic Comics…well, that’s at least something)…and says:

    “When in fourth grade I found a Hardy Boys book in the attic, I spent three days curled up in a chair, totally engrossed. I didn’t even know there was a Nancy Drew. ”

    So the fact that the protagonists of the Hardy Boys didn’t “look like her” evidently didn’t detract from her pleasure in reading or her growing interest in books.

  4. As far as reading is concerned, Phonics fits the analogy of teaching a man to fish. If you learn phonics, you can “sound out” unfamiliar words. I grew up going to Catholic schools where teaching grammar was a big deal and we diagrammed sentences until we were sick of it. But I still mentally diagram long sentences. My ex-wife grew up in west LA and went to a private school that had adopted the “modern” way of teaching reading. The kids were taught to “see and say”or recognize words by sight. When she began college she had to take “dumbbell English” or English 1Y before taking English 1a and 1 b. I used to tease her about this when she denied it. It wasn’t the cause of the divorce but she didn’t like it.

    The same applies to Math. My theory is that Education as a college major is boring, especially for the faculty, so they are always coming up with new ways to teach old subjects. We would be better off if teachers went to the old fashioned “teachers’ colleges” like Lyndon Johnson attended. The whole Cal State system began as teachers’ colleges but then expanded into the university system it is today. As it got bigger, California education got worse. When my grandson was in 4th grade he was having trouble with math. His mother met with his teacher who told her she could not do the math problems with Common Core, either. The teacher suggested his mother teach him using “traditional methods.”

  5. Mike K…”His mother met with his teacher who told her she could not do the math problems with Common Core, either.” A very successful company founder mentioned that he found his 4th grade son was having problems with math class. Turned out that they were doing something called ‘color arithmetic’, in which colors were assigned to numbers for some reason, so you would multiply green times blue giving yellow, or something like that.

  6. I’m not surprised to see that. Education majors in universities are the lowest quintile in IQ and grades in high school. My ex-wife was an Ed major and taught for a couple of years until our first child. Then, in the late 80s long after our divorce, she briefly went back to teaching. She had actually been a bank VP and was laid off in a merger. Pete Wilson was governor of CA and there was a flap about class size. The state hired a lot of new teachers and she had a lifetime credential. They all had to take a test called “CBEST,” which she said was 8th grade level. There was protest from the usual subjects that it was “racist.’ Anyway, she taught 3rd grade as a long term temp until she got another bank job. She was appalled by the changes she saw. The teachers were not interested in the kids and would make fun of them out of the kids’ hearing. It was a blue collar suburb of LA. She complimented a 2nd grade teacher on her success in getting kids ready to read. The woman burst into tears. No one had ever said anything good to her. When she left, the principle told her she was his best teacher, trying to get her to stay. She hadn’t taught in 25 years. He lived near her and she would see him in the market occasionally. He would remember her and talk about teaching.

    What a mess !

  7. I’d feel much less uneasy about using any AI to teach children if the programmers could somehow assure me that the systems wasn’t making up false material out of the whole cloth. Too many examples of AI’s just plain falsifying information (completely fabricated citations, creating examples of people who simply never existed, etc.) for me to trust any of those programs at this point to educate a child.

  8. One of the key things about the Stephenson’s Primer is how it screwed up society as a net effect. It was misused in a population increase scheme to substitute for parents and it absolutely fouled up a lot of kids’ lives.

    A major heroic theme is dehumanized kids gaining humanity despite the bad aspects of Primer-centered child-rearing.

  9. Well, I went to school in Toronto in the 70s and 80s and perhaps the rot had already set it in part. But I don’t see that anything has improved in pedagogy since. I suspect humanity knew all that it could about it by then.

    Sesame Street I probably learned something from in terms of letters and numbers. Pity about the obvious diversity and communitarian propaganda.

  10. Not much to do with AI, but this story just piqued my interest:

    To save having to read through all the fluff, the crucial paragraph is:
    “Hung, who graduated on May 20 along with Fullerton’s 900 other graduates received five Associate of Arts degrees in History, Social Sciences, Social Behavior and Self-Development, Arts and Human Expression, and Science and Mathematics.”

    Given that this is a community college, I’m at a loss to see how nearly all of the “degrees” have any relevance in therms of employability. Not that a 12 year old has that many employment prospects.

    I wondered what the “Science and Mathematics degree” was and suddenly remembered there was this new fangled thing called the internet, that maybe Fullerton College might have heard of it too and what do you know:
    There might be some actual meat there, I suspect the rest are mostly certificates of attendance. I also noticed he could have gotten a Swiss lathe certificate or trained in Multicam. Opportunities lost.

  11. I’m pretty sure there’s a pretty big overlap between Instapundit and here, so I’m not claiming a great discovery but this is apposite.

    When judges start talking sanctions, lawyers listen really close. It’s hard to believe a professional would quote ChatGPT without at least checking. So we’re not just faking term papers any more.

    My opinion is that ChatGPT isn’t AI, it’s not even a reliable front end to a search engine since it seems as likely to spout absolute fabrications as not. And that doesn’t even begin to address that some fair proportion of what’s on the web is complete nonsense or purposeful misdirection.

  12. Education has poisoned itself by playing to the child’s natural tendency towards narcissism.
    I just finished teaching a high school class as a favor to a colleague of mine. This particular high school had decided that the students did not like lectures, so every bit of work these kids did was in the form of a project, in groups of 4. As a result, these juniors and seniors learned absolutely nothing. They cheated off each other without the slightest embarrassment. And when their stupidity was pointed out, they were simply offended. There was zero excuse for their horrible academic performance. All came from upper-middle class two parent stable homes in a good neighborhood. But the education geniuses who ran the school bowed down to them, instead of demanding that the students stand up and strive.
    Most importantly, they were all entranced with the idea that AI could let them get away with doing even less.

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