Jacob has been attending a classical school since 6th grade and is now in the first semester of 12th. He has been taught to be a good reader and a skilled thinker, but he has never been shown best practices for online information retrieval. When Jacob has an information need, his “research methods” are indistinguishable from millions of other young people his age: he speaks or types a query into Google and then sees what comes up, rarely looking beyond the first page of results.
Jacob considers himself quite a good researcher, yet if you were to ask him to explain how he distinguishes trustworthy vs untrustworthy sources, he would not be able to tell you. This is not Jacob’s fault: during his entire education, no one has bothered to teach him basic practices for retrieval and evaluation of online sources—what is often referred to as “information literacy” or “digital literacy.” His senior thesis coordinator is a man well trained in writing craft, rhetoric, and classical languages, with a liberal arts degree from a respectable Great Books college yet has also never received instruction in digital literacy.
Jacob’s experience is not unique and is shared by many students in classical schools and homeschools.
“We don’t do enough to prepare students for digital literacy – being wise in their research skills,” Devin O’Donnell told me when we spoke about this. He continued:
It’s very easy for teachers just to say ‘go do some research on this thing’ without thinking about what it means. And that’s a really dangerous thing. At best, it’s simply unhelpful and at worst, it can be dangerous. So, we have a lot of work to do on equipping students to do research, and now with AI it raises this imperative to a whole new level.
I think Devin is correct. If lack of attention to information literacy is a problem for classical schools now, it will be intensified ten-fold after AI-based research methods have become the primary information retrieval tool for high school students. Since our students will be using these tools outside the classroom, it behooves us to teach them to approach AI with wisdom, similar to how it is worthwhile to teach students to exercise critical thinking when using Wikipedia, or how to think critically about popular music. Here we may draw on the wisdom of C.S. Lewis who remarked, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Similarly, good habits of information literacy must be taught if for no other reason than that bad habits must be addressed and mitigated.
What might this type of information literacy instruction look like? Though AI is still in its infancy and will likely pose challenges we cannot currently foresee, I will venture to suggest three areas where classical educators should prepare to teach AI:
- Information Retrieval,
- Information Evaluation
- Information Behavior
- Information Habits
I discussed these four areas in my Salvo article, “ChatGPT in the classroom Part 2.” Here is the outline I presented in that article:
Information Retrieval. Christian educators can prepare to teach students how to effectively use AI as a research tool in a God-honoring way. This includes studying questions like:
- What type of research is AI suited for? What type of research is AI not suited for?
- What are the most effective ways for setting up an effective AI-based information query?
- How can we practice AI-based retrieval methods in a way that aligns with and even strengthens our God-given intelligence?
Information Evaluation. It is imperative that Christian educators teach students how to evaluate bot-generated content, especially when that content reflects certain worldviews and agendas that may not be obvious on the surface. This would include exploring questions such as:
- How are neural networks produced and how do they function? How should this inform evaluation of bot-generated content?
- What are the best practices for fact-checking auto-generated content?
- Do chatbots reflect the secular worldview of their human programmers? If so, how can we engage with auto-generated content without being naïve or unnecessarily dismissive?
- What epistemic virtues are important when performing due diligence on material produced by a chatbot?
Information Behavior. Christian educators can prepare to teach students to work with bot-generated content in a way that is consonant with the goals of Christian education. This includes addressing questions like:
- Is it ever appropriate for students to incorporate bot-generated content into a writing project? What about getting a bot to help produce an outline, or edit a draft?
- Is it plagiarism or cheating to take bot-generated content and rewrite it in one’s own words?
- When we have identified that bot-generated content is reliable and helpful, how do we avoid merely mimicking it instead of synthesizing it into larger schemas of personal knowledge?
Information Habits. Christian educators should prepare to teach students the types of habits constitutive to flourishing with bot-generated content. This would include questions like the following:
- What are the primary temptations when using AI as an information retrieval tool, and what habits help buffer us from these temptations?
- What epistemic virtues are conducive to good information habits when working with AI?
- What types of offline behaviors help one to be virtuous when interacting online with AI?
These and similar questions will soon be pressing since the Google search will likely be replaced by more powerful AI-powered information delivery systems. Very soon AI will become so adroit at delivering desired content and images (if not entire websites immediately generated for the customized needs of a single user) that surfing the web may even become a thing of the past. The very ease with which pre-packaged customized information will be delivered to each user makes it imperative that students receive the type of training I am advocating.
Don’t Go Luddite
Elsewhere I have raised concern that this type of information literacy instruction is in danger of being short-circuited by an approach towards AI of total rejection. From my earlier article, “Why AI is Not Satanic“:
As I talk to people in the educational world, one of the things that keeps coming up is that not only are we unprepared for the impact of AI, but we haven’t even taught students how to properly engage with the internet. Often students in classical schools do not have even minimal digital literacy when it comes to best practices for online information retrieval and information evaluation, and if this was a problem in the age of the Google search, it will be even more a problem when AI becomes the primary research tool. In short, Christian educators are not ready for the digital tsunami that is about to hit them with AI. We have a lot of work to do really fast, yet it is hard to convince people that this work is important or even ethical if they have been convinced that everything about AI is demonic….
When we come to a technology like AI, the question is not whether it will change our way of perceiving the world and ourselves, but how. Yet this very question is in danger of being short-circuited through either a naïve optimism which treats AI as simply a neutral tool, or through an uncritical rejection that dismisses the entire field as demonic and evil.
We see a precedent for this with cell phones. Have you ever noticed that families who have a total no-technology policy are the same families who, once they decide to let their teenager get a smartphone, eventually let them operate with no restrictions or purely minimal monitoring? This might seem like a paradox, but it makes sense when we understand that both naïve technological optimism and uncritical rejection (i.e. AI is satanic) are two sides of the same coin. The alternative to both is critical engagement. And that means getting our hands dirty with the nitty gritty of information literacy instruction.
But is it “Classical”?
Classical educators may be plagued by the suspicion that the type of AI-based information literacy instruction I describe, though important, is not “classical.” One classical educator I spoke with told me that because education is not meant to be “useful,” students should be left to pick up digital literacy skills on their own outside the classroom.
Part of the suspicion for teaching AI-based information literacy likely arises from the widespread division between the humanities, STEM, and social sciences that has now metastasized in much of academia, including (I am sad to say) the classical education movement. Those who have internalized these dichotomies may instinctively revolt at using the classical academy to teach the type of computer-based skills discussed in the last section.
We would do well to remember that for the best thinkers of our tradition, to be a mature man or woman involved the application of virtue and competency to the particularities of one’s historical and cultural moment. Just as Michelangelo could not have been a great artist without achieving competency in practical skills like mixing paints and knowing how to use the types of hammers and chisels that existed in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, so today’s students cannot become good thinkers and writers without achieving competency in the practical skills comprising information literacy. And just as the craft of mixing paints was different in Michelangelo’s time than in our own, so the craft of research will be different in five years to what it is today. We cannot predict how research will change, but it will certainly involve different capabilities and temptations to anything we know today.
I admit that for classical educators schooled on reactionary and defensive polemics, the very usefulness of this type of information literacy training may seem more like a bug than a feature.[i] Yet the classical ideal of an educated person involved not disembodied brains, nor disembodied hearts experiencing right-ordered affections in an existential vacuum; rather, a well-rounded citizen is one in which theoretical knowledge, rightly ordered affection, and practical skill have been holistically integrated. Such integration is encompassed in how the ancients conceived piety, which itself was understood to be the telos of education.[ii] We may go even further: the argument has been made—in my view, cogently—that the practical question, “What should one do?” lies at the heart of contextual learning.[iii]
[i] The output of classical educators is now replete with a plethora of pejoratives denigrating education that is useful. Among such pejoratives are terms like “functional,” “utilitarian,” “non-Pieperian,” “job training,” and—when used with scare quotes—even the word “useful.”
[ii] Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Classical Academic Press, 2013), 141.
[iii] This argument is laid out by David Hicks in the preface to the 1990 edition of David Hicks, Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education (Oxford: University Press of America, 1999) vi.