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Is AI the catalyst of a liberal arts renaissance?

| Tuesday, August 29, 2023

At the beginning of this semester, my professor in a data-focused research elective told us that he was making some changes to the course. He was going to spend less time walking us through the coding skills needed to operate a popular data manipulation software called Stata. Instead, he advised us to take advantage of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that can write and explain dozens of lines of perfect syntax on command. As long as we take time to understand what the code is doing, he said, ChatGPT is an excellent learning resource and it allows him to focus his lectures on more interesting material. Then, he told us what students are hearing increasingly around campus: AI is here to stay. You might as well use it.

As the age of AI closes in, professors around campus are going to make similar decisions. Programming-related courses will adapt to AI tools, focusing on the theory behind the code rather than the syntax itself. Andrej Karpathy, a leading AI researcher, posted on X, formerly Twitter, that “The hottest new programming language is English.”

He’s right. As AI continues its rapid development, we will no longer need to learn to code – only to understand programming at its more fundamental level. On top of this, analytical skills like accounting, visual communication and data literacy can all be mastered by AI. These developments don’t mean that these skills will become obsolete or that Notre Dame students should be concerned about job security, but the way we understand college education needs to change to accommodate the emergence of AI. 

Notre Dame, like other American universities, has seen a huge decline in liberal arts enrollment in the last decade, losing half of its humanities majors between 2012 and 2020, according to the New Yorker. In a world where the cost of a college education has risen at nearly five times the rate of inflation, this should not be a surprise. Students need a return on their investments, and this leads them to the “useful” major — one that teaches concrete, resume-ready skills that pave a secure path to career success. Often, this means STEM majors that teach students software such as Stata, MatLab, R, SolidWorks and Excel. But there’s now a problem: AI is about to take an axe to the labor market and data analysis is the first on the chopping block. At a school where the number one job title for recent graduates is analyst, this should be cause for concern.

Most studies predict that AI will not cause a mass firing of technically skilled professionals, but the tasks demanded of skilled workers will change. According to Forbes, the professional service jobs of the future will “evolve around the ability to deploy tools like ChatGPT while practicing human decision-making, problem-solving, strategy, leadership and team-building.” Forbes advises professionals to prepare for this change by embracing AI and finding its shortcomings like my research class did. In short, the technical skills that students covet will lose value, but we will remain employed if we focus on what sets us as apart from AI. That’s where the liberal arts education comes in. 

The problem causing the demise of the liberal arts is not a lack of interest. It’s the growth of a category of students who would study the humanities but are otherwise held back by concerns about job eligibility. Now, as technical skills lose their value in the job market, STEM and business majors will lose their career advantage. When the English major is as qualified for a position in financial services or strategy consulting as the finance major, the liberal arts have their renaissance. Students will once again choose majors for the sake of interest rather than practicality. 

In fact, the humanities might gain an edge over their technically focused counterparts because humanities majors do everything that machines cannot do. Sure, ask ChatGPT to write a sonnet or a paper on Virginia Woolf and it will write one, but AI cannot experience arts and letters in the way humans can. AI will never do something for the sake of itself, which is the nature of activities like poetry, philosophy and art. Artes liberales, the “free arts,” are free in that they do not depend on the usefulness of their study. Useful skills are a by-product of a liberal arts education, but the true goal is the experience itself. In fact, the humanities might be the only course of study not threatened by the advent of AI.

So, what does this mean for Notre Dame? It doesn’t mean that the whole student body will suddenly flood O’Shaughnessy Hall. Students who study STEM and business fields out of interest, not utility – and there are plenty of them – will continue their courses of study. But my hope is that fifteen years from now, no student will give up on their interest in the liberal arts for the sake of job security. The hundreds of posters in O’Shaughnessy trying desperately to persuade students that they can “do anything” with a humanities degree can come down, and the liberal arts can return to their former glory.

Rose is a senior from Buffalo, NY with majors in economics and the Program of Liberal Studies. Her writing interests include ethics, campus culture and the intersection of economics, politics and philosophy. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading on the tenth floor of the library, losing intramural basketball games or working at the Law School.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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