Why AI Can Never Replace The Need For Reading And Writing

Originally appeared at The Federalist on February 27, 2024

Last semester I had a memorable conversation with a student at our university about writing. I was giving a lecture in a communications class on the importance of writing, specifically, how to write op-eds to influence public opinion and policy. This student raised his hand and politely but assertively told me that writing is “old school” and that he has moved on to images and videos.

Now I don’t want to underestimate the importance and power of images and film for communication in our very visual culture, but neither did I want this student to underestimate the lasting importance and power of writing. With the onset of the digital revolution, many predicted that books would go away. They did not. When the new technology of speech recognition software appeared, many predicted that writing would go away. It did not. Now many are saying something similar about AI and ChatGPT. But again, I predict it will not.

Reading and writing are two essential skills of learning — gateway skills. Our K-12 schools and universities had better get them right. Reading opens up worlds. Writing changes worlds. We only speak as well as we write and think. We only write as well as we read. Both skills are foundational for our democratic republic.

Most of the American Founding Fathers were avid readers and disciplined writers. They understood the value of the press, the writing of political tracts and sermons. Their writings have transcended time and left an indelible mark on American history. But long before them, way back in the 16th century, Sir Francis Bacon himself said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” That’s still true.

I don’t want our students (or our readers) to underestimate the importance and power of writing. Images quickly disappear. A shot on the TV screen lasts three to eight seconds. Writing doesn’t vaporize. There is something lasting about it. It’s been said that if you want to extend your life, write and leave something worth reading.

So I reminded this skeptical student that when God wanted to transmit his message to the world, what did he do? The Bible says he wrote something on tablets. That’s another reason to take writing seriously. Remember, the Old Testament and the New Testament were written in and given to cultures that were largely illiterate. In other words, it wasn’t really valued. There was no demand for writing. These were primarily visual cultures. Nevertheless, God used words anyway because they have staying power — they last. And they have.

When Jesus wanted to transmit his message to the world, he chose apostles who wrote gospels and letters. Perhaps that is why Jews and Christians have been called “people of the book.” When John describes Jesus in the fourth gospel, he refers to him as “the Word.” At the end of his gospel, John speculates that if all the things that Jesus did were written down, even the whole world would not have room for all the books that would be written.

There will always be room for and need for great writers. That is why a strategic priority of our university is “to teach students how to speak and write clearly and effectively.”

But don’t we have enough content, another student asked me in that same class? William F. Buckley had an apt reply: “Why do I write so much? Because my enemy writes more.” In a world abounding in bad content, we need more good content!

Martin Luther put it this way, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” That’s an important message for Gen Z students everywhere who might be tempted to dismiss writing as “old school.” It’s certainly not!

There are two essential skills required to produce this editorial: writing and reading. The authors of any book write so that people can read.

With that in mind, “Tolle Lege.”

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