OPINION: Is AI Devaluing the Humanities?

With the Writer’s Guild of America currently on strike, it sparks conversation on how we see the humanities and, inadvertently, how we value them. According to iSchoolConnect, “The humanities include the study of ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, history, archaeology, anthropology, human geography, law, religion and art.” Each of these fields holds vast amounts of knowledge and importance that make up the foundation of culture, relations and creation. No subject is unimportant if it ignites joy. 

To garner a grander understanding of multiple perspectives on the humanities, I reached out to  Professor Martha Silano, a professor of English here at Bellevue College. “I disagree that the humanities are unimportant,” she shared first. “Over forty years ago, when I shared that I was majoring in English, many people told me it was a ‘worthless major.’ Well, I strongly beg to differ. In the case of English, there are so many possible career choices. Just about every place of employment requires the ability to write. I have no regrets about focusing on the humanities as an undergrad and pursuing a masters in creative writing. Thanks to these academic choices, I was able to pursue my passion for teaching and writing.” I, too, strongly believe that the humanities are vitally important to the balance and improvement of our world. I agree that STEM subjects are important, but not at the expense of the humanities. In a simplified way of speaking, fields in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics realm discover, but those in the humanities tend to create.

Though I agree that “just about every place of employment requires the ability to write,” I fear that companies are not recognizing this — and, inevitably, it might cost them a great deal. Back in January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Buzzfeed initiated plans to use ChatGPT by OpenAI to start creating content, and, recently, Paper Magazine laid off their entire editorial staff due to a substantial decline in ad revenue. Dr. Cara Diaconoff — another English professor at BC — shared that “it’s true that academic humanities programs are struggling more than programs in business or STEM fields, and have been for a while. But data also shows that employers continue to value the skills students gain in studying the humanities. Furthermore, employers tend not to care about the specific major a prospective employee pursued in college. Organizations want people who can think creatively and critically and who can write. That is just one fact that argues for the continuing importance of the humanities.” Though we are seeing current trends of writers being laid off, I hope this does not become more common with the increased use of A.I. programs.

With the growing conversation surrounding A.I. and its capabilities to replace jobs, Silano shared, “As for AI, I feel it has absolutely no place in an academic institution of learning.” When asked if it is unethical in the humanities, she relayed, “I don’t know about unethical, but I am uncomfortable with students being permitted to use AI to aid them in their academic assignments. Call me old-fashioned, but from the limited knowledge I have of AI-generated poems, stories and essays, I am distressed.” Diaconoff shared a slightly similar perspective, stating, “As for AI and storytelling, no, I would say that AI is unlikely to be able to create written stories that could have the same emotional impact on readers as those written by humans.”

To test this on a small scale, I decided to ask BC’s Literature Club leaderboard to identify which of two poems is written by A.I. and the other by me. The vote was in the correct answer with a vote of two-to-one.

“Using AI in the humanities isn’t necessarily unethical,” Diaconoff continued. “And if AI is making certain kinds of jobs obsolete, that doesn’t in itself mean that the use of AI is unethical. There are many possible applications of AI in humanities courses that would be positive and useful. On a larger scale, there is a concern among AI experts and engineers that it would be unethical to keep developing new AI tools before the societal implications have been fully worked out.” I decided to ask the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s perspective) ChatGPT about its thoughts on if A.I. has a place in the humanities. The artificial intelligence program stated the following:

“Yes, I believe AI has a place in the humanities. While the humanities traditionally involve critical thinking, creativity, and a deep understanding of human experiences, AI can complement these aspects by offering new perspectives, generating insights, and assisting in various tasks. AI can aid in analyzing vast amounts of data, identifying patterns, and assisting in research. It can also help in language translation, interpretation, and even generate artistic works. However, it’s important to remember that AI should be seen as a tool to enhance human capabilities rather than replace the unique qualities that make us human. The collaboration between AI and humanities can lead to innovative approaches and deepen our understanding of the world around us.”

A current issue many are seeing when combining AI and art is that AI generates its creations from the previous works of actual artists and writers, meaning that it is not “offering new perspectives,” but replaying what has already been done or said with slight alterations. Additionally, who is this “us” the chat is referring to?  

“I had been already planning to use AI examples when introducing assignments to show the difference between good writing and lifeless writing,” Diaconoff shared when asked if she was planning to implement the discourse surrounding the belittlement of humanities into any of her curricula. “We can now use AI to show students just how and why the humanities, and human expression, are powerful and valuable.” Silano shared, “No, not at this time, but it might be something to consider in the future. My goal is to make writing/studying English interesting, engaging, enriching, worthwhile, applicable as a way to foster life-long enjoyment of writing and reading, and, most of all, as a way to broaden perspectives, better understand oneself and others, and to sometimes even HAVE FUN.”

For the prospective humanities students currently questioning their career path, consider following Silano’s advice: “I would profusely encourage them to go for it! Whatever career they end up pursuing, a humanities degree will provide them (or should provide them) with a firm understanding of critical thinking, equity and diversity issues, and a deeper understanding of the human experience.” 

Diaconoff touched on this as well, stating that, “Students should major in a field because they love doing the work and learning the things that are taught in that field. The knowledge and skills they acquire will be applicable in a range of other jobs and fields. If they, or their parents, are very concerned about financial security — which is a valid concern especially if they have invested a lot of money in their education — then they could minor in a field that appears to offer more job security. The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that the employment landscape and market can change in unpredictable ways. This is all the more reason to major in a field where your interests and talents lie rather than trying to guess which field will lead to the most job security.” I hope individuals will not let fear prevent them from a future they innately desire. Though the growth of ChatGPT and other A.I. programs can be intimidating, each individual has their own unique voice, and I implore you to be confident in your own.