I’m no Mr. Miyagi

KarateKid WaxOnWaxOff

My friend Richard Gibson:

Emerging adults need to see, as one of my colleagues put it, “the benefits of the struggle” in their own lives as well as their instructors’. The work before us — to preserve old practices and to implement new ones — provides the ideal occasion to talk to our students about not only the intellectual goods offered by our fields that we want them to experience. It is also a chance to share how we have been shaped for the better by the slow, often arduous work of joining a discipline. Our students need more than technology, and the answer cannot simply come in the form of another list of dos-and-don’ts in the already crowded space of a syllabus. They need models for how to navigate these new realities — paradigms for their practice, life models. AI’s foremost challenge for higher education is to think afresh about forming humans.

My heart says Yes, but my head says I think it’s impossible. That is, I suspect the owl of Minerva really does fly only at night, and one cannot learn the value of “the slow, often arduous work of joining a discipline” in advance. That value can only be discerned in retrospect. 

Imagine that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel the wax-on/wax-off technique and leaves him to get to work. Then, as Daniel is straining and sweating, a guy comes up to him with a little machine labeled WaxGPT. “Hey kid! Wow, you’re working hard there. But I have good news: this machine will do the waxing for you. And it’s free! All you have to do is give me your phone number.”

You think Daniel will hesitate? You think his reverence for Mr. Miyagi will keep him in line? Unlikely; but just possible, I guess, since Daniel has seen Mr. Miyagi’s prowess and has asked to be taught by him. That’s not how it is for many of us who teach university students. My students are not free agents making free choices. I haven’t saved any of them from vicious thugs. A few of them may admire me in certain respects, but almost all of them think of my assignments as mere impediments, and I don’t think I can change that view in advance of their maturation. Later they may thank me — a good many have, over the years — but they don’t thank me in the moment. Even Daniel is likely to think that WaxGPT can do the dirty work for him so that, in his own good time, Mr. Miyagi will teach him something useful. 

So while I don’t disagree with Rick’s overall emphasis on personal formation, I believe we should reassess — radically reassess — the relationship between such formation and our assignments, assessment, and testing. I think that’s where we have to begin learning to live in the Bot Age. My guess is that those schools that are already disconnected from the standard assessment metrics — places like Reed College and the two St. John’s colleges — will be best placed to deal with the challenges of this era.