April 20, 2024
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April 20, 2024
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The Need for Authentic Intelligence

In the 16-word poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams lauds the indispensability, of all things, of a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater. He does not spell out what it does or why it matters, but merely claims that “so much depends upon” it, clarifying only that it rests beside the white chickens.

This poem, as all good poems do, asks more than it answers. We are compelled to analyze this wheelbarrow and determine not only its functionality but where, within that, lies its greatness and necessity.

The wheelbarrow, a rudimentary farming tool dating back to 100 BCE, represents much more than a simple carrying device. This basic structure carries food to the chickens, thus assuring that they can feed man. The natural elements present in the poem—rain and animals—are the world we are given. The unnatural addition—a wheel, and the creativity to fashion a device that keeps the world going—is what man contributes, and therefore, so much depends upon not only the contributions of man but his ability to think beyond the here and now.

In Parshas Noach, we re-meet a man who had been introduced not long before, when his father, Lamech, predicts the comfort Noach will bring by taking land and innovating unforeseen ways to tame it. Midrash Tanchuma elaborates that Noach, born into an agrarian society, will witness the toil necessary for man, and devise the plows and scythes that take the raw material handed to us and fashion it into something manageable. Much like the wheelbarrow, Noach understood that our role in this world is not as passive but as active participants. We are meant to be curious and take initiative to improve upon the world through our unique creativity and understanding.

As educators, there is both inspiration and caution to be drawn from Noach’s contributions to society. On the one hand, what a celebration of the human spirit and the crucial stratosphere of the classroom! Rather than restrict ourselves to ancient texts and embrace the ways of the past, we are tasked with and praised for pushing our students beyond the scope of the here and now, using a variety of subjects to do so. We prod students to problem-solve and innovate, bringing our universe closer to perfection.

But does progress always yield success? For every step forward in the history of innovation, there has been a price attached. With the speed of email and texts, we have lost the quality and authenticity of communication that now seem useless. As we navigate foreign streets, blindly following a mechanical voice, we no longer learn routes or even remember how we got there. For every tool that brings efficiency, we lose the very creativity that drove our inventions in the first place.

Our students are living in truly unprecedented times. We have phones in our pockets that we barely use for calling, and we expect most things to happen at breakneck speed, whether it’s the availability of a file or the delivery of a package. But even more than the inventions we use daily and thoughtlessly, often unaware of what we might be losing as we do so, our students are now confronting a world in which the very basics of what we teach them may seem obsolete—like the art of writing.

Artificial Intelligence and its most recent manifestation, ChatGPT (a program that can write whatever it is asked to produce), have called to question many things:the future of countless jobs, the relevance of writing skills, the need for artists. But at the core, what we are now truly confronting is the question of what makes us human. The losses we have heretofore written off for the sake of progress had a corollary that allowed for a sort of balance. Perhaps there is a learned helplessness that ensues from reliance upon machines, but at the same time, how wonderful is the gift of time that human creativity has given us. We no longer beat our clothing against the rocks by the river, and presumably now we can have the headspace to do what man does best—what machines could never do—create.

The world our students are navigating may become less about partnering with God to creatively improve upon His world, and more about denying our loftier, thoughtful selves. In an effort to find ease at the cost of all effort, even creative effort, we are not advancing ourselves but diminishing.

The menial tasks that occupied so much of man’s days throughout history are not necessarily chores that are fundamental to man’s existence. But what separates us from those machines that do our bidding has always been our originality, our artistry, our God given ability to let our own perspective shine in inimitable ways.

Teachers today stand at a crossroad. We have before us a generation that will ask, for the first time, why they should bother mastering skills that were never once questioned, skills that are no longer strictly practical but rather actual outputs of the uniquely human experience. The practical efficiency of AI stands to overtake the more abstract and less compelling argument to keep doing something that is hard, despite the fact that we no longer have to.

When we think about that humble yet celebrated wheelbarrow, we recognize man’s power. Now imagine an invention that removes the farmer from the equation altogether—chickens hatched in labs, farms that operate entirely by remote control. Where does man’s power reside then?

When ChatGPT first appeared, the question so many of my fellow English teachers asked was, how will we catch our students when they use it? But the question we need to be asking—all of us—is, what is the point of learning and doing? What is the role of human connection, of relationship building, of curiosity, in a world that consistently moves us away from those facets? God created the world through words. We as Jews are people of the book, avid learners, seekers of truth, always finding ways to increase our creativity rather than invent ways out of it.

We must always return to the question: what is our goal? Teachers know firsthand the temptation our students feel to let laziness cloud their growth. After all, as young people, they are struggling to develop themselves, and need strong motivation to push against society’s effort to decrease that of their own. In their often short-sighted view, rather than do the work, they will more likely find a passive way out of it, satisfying a short term desire at the cost of a long term need.

Teachers stand as gatekeepers to our students’ better selves. We strive to combat the wills of the world around us and model a sense of partnership rather than absolution of selves. We are here to spot the weaknesses upon which border society preys, and compel our students to demand better from themselves. My hope for this year is that we instill within our students an appreciation for the hard work that brought us to where we are now, and the appreciation that it is only through hard work that we can truly partner with God and enhance the world—and ourselves—in the process.

Mrs. Margueya Poupko has been a teacher at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth for the past sixteen years, where she also serves as English Department Chair, and AP English and Creative Writing teacher. Mrs. Poupko is widely recognized for her ability to empower her students through academic rigor (including critical thinking and intellectual autonomy), humor and sensitivity, while introducing Torah values within the context of classical texts.

Margueya Poupko earned a degree in English from Stern College, where she previously taught on the collegiate level. Mrs. Poupko earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is certified to teach AP English through the College Board. (She has worked as an AP reader for the AP English Composition Exam.) Mrs. Poupko is the recipient of the Star-Ledger Teacher Award and the Jerry Gottesman Quest Award for the Pursuit of Teaching Excellence.

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