AI and Humanism: Keeping the Catholic Charism Alive in Education by Embracing AI
Education changes with the times. Sumerians wrote on clay tablets. Ancient Egyptians used papyrus. The Romans used wax. The use of the blackboard can be traced to 1801. In modern times, we have seen the advent of computers, the internet, whiteboards, and smartboards. With each new tool, educators have embraced (maybe not at first) the innovations and integrated them into our daily routine.
The newest innovation to enter our classrooms is generative artificial intelligence (AI). Conferences ranging from the NCEA convention to the ASU-GSV Summit (started in 2010 with a collaboration between Arizona State University (ASU) and Global Silicon Valley (GSV), the annual ASU+GSV Summit brings the leaders in innovative education together) were hosting discussions and panels on the future of AI in K–12 education. As they should be. A recent survey by Tyton Partners showed that 39% of students surveyed used generative AI to write entire assignments (e.g., submitting an assignment that is plagiarized) and 46% of college students report that they will use generative AI writing tools, even if prohibited by their instructor or institution. Late last year, OpenAI’s ChatGPT reached 1 million users in five days! Six months later, Congress asked its CEO if his product was going to destroy humanity. In contrast, it took Facebook 10 months to get to 1 million users, and it was then 14 years before its CEO was hauled before Congress for potentially damaging humanity. With data like this, school leaders should be concerned and discussing how to use and engage with AI.
However, a part of the discussion that has not entered the arena is the role of Humanism in a Catholic school where AI is only going to become more prevalent. To begin this discussion, it is important to have a general understanding of the Catholic roots of humanism, as many today view humanism as a secular mode of thinking and living. But the roots of humanism date to 14th century Italian Catholic communities.
The Roots of Humanism
Groups of Catholic teachers and students in Italy began turning to classical Latin and Greek literature and other pre-Christian literature in which they found truth, beauty, and inspiration. These languages, particularly Greek, opened the minds of the readers into an expanded use of language and more specific vocabulary to broaden their way of thinking.
This new study of Greek and Latin as a way to deeper truths was referred to as the study of the humanities. This early Renaissance humanism (14th to 16th centuries) not only addressed people’s minds but also their hearts as it focused on the whole person. Most of these early humanists were Christians.
The goal of this early Renaissance education was to create men who would make a difference in society. AI integration into the curriculum can have the same outcomes. Students will be better educated and open to expanding their hearts and minds but only if teachers engage the tool in the discovery of truth and morality.
A humanist leader’s goal is to persuade others to lead a better life, and school was the basis for these early humanists. Renaissance humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity, and thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. In literature, there are great humanist thinkers like Thomas More and Erasmus. They used literature as a means of communicating this ideal. Their lives reflected humanism and inspired others to live by those ideals. They used the tools at their disposal to craft new ways of thinking and to reflect on the world around them.
Over the years Humanism has evolved to focus on appreciation and fostering of the human wherever the person comes from. Modern Humanists are now considered non-religious people who strive to lead fulfilling, meaningful and ethical lives, using reason and empathy to guide their decisions and actions. Humanists base their understanding of the world on reason and science, rejecting supernatural or divine beliefs. Humanists reject all forms of racism and prejudice, and believe in living in harmony with one another, respecting everyone’s human rights, including the right to freedom of religion and belief. Finally, Humanists believe we have a responsibility to respect and care for one another, and to protect the natural world. (https://humanists.international/what-is-humanism/)
This respect for life and of non-religious person’s is also steeped in our Catholic intellectual tradition.
Humanism and Catholicism
Thomas More wrote profoundly about non-religious aspects of humanism. In his work “Utopia,” we see him describe the perfect secular world. Even though Thomas More’s life was deeply religious, he does not equate humanism to Catholicism. He states that “Nature herself prescribes a life of joy” and that “they described virtue to be life lived according to the prescripts of Nature.” Those non-religious ideals of humanism were, and still and are, intrinsic to Catholic culture and charism. And they are evident in our Catholic schools.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the emphasis on virtuous action was the goal of learning. Those virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Although none of these is intrinsically Catholic, the Catholic Church intrinsically embraces these virtues.
Humanism embraces objective truth—a fundamental part of Catholic faith. According to Stephen Law in Humanism and Morality, humanist morality is focused on humans and supposes that non-natural facts include objective moral facts.
Can AI become the new Greek language for Catholic students looking expand their minds? This new tool and its ability to engage young people in language and objective truth directly relates to humanism and especially ancient study of languages.
Can AI become a tool teachers use to open their students’ minds much like humanism? We believe the language of generative AI programming can have a similar effect on the minds of students. A new language tool that inspires the humanist to think on a different level. For example, a high school English teacher, can inspire her students to think on a different level—not just write an essay for an assignment—but examine objective moral truth vs. plagiarism. The teacher can have the student put the essay prompt in ChatGPT—compare and contrast the qualities of Huck Finn versus Jim. Then the student can do a critical analysis of ChatGPT’s response. How close is it to objective truth?
Using AI to Nurture Hearts and Minds
As generative AI becomes more prevalent in Catholic schools, it is critical for school leaders to not only strategically think about how a school will use AI, but also how it can enhance a school’s focus on not only a student’s mind but their heart—how to foster and embrace the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—a hallmark of a quality Catholic education.
There is much criticism today of this generation—they are engrossed in TikTok and Instagram. In a sense, they are living like characters in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” They are living in the shadows and do not want to leave the cave of social media to come into reality and live a productive life. Can teachers use AI to engage the hearts and minds of students to leave the cave and come into the world to help society?
A specific example of how AI could help a school further develop a student’s heart and soul would be ensuring each student essentially has a personal tutor using generative AI. When AI is carefully adapted to a Catholic learning environment, it has enormous potential. It can guide students as they progress through courses and ask them questions like a tutor would. AI can assist teachers with administrative tasks, which saves them valuable time so they can focus on what’s most important—their students. AI learns from each interaction. As the student dives more deeply into each question, the AI can guide that search for meaning by generating follow-up questions. An AI tutor can enter the dialogue with the student, each question opening varied possibilities for reflection.
To be clear, there is a long way to go as AI is very nascent.
There has been a lot of talk about tutoring as a way to address the steep learning loss from the pandemic. A lot of money has been spent on “high dosage tutoring” (generally defined as one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in very small groups at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester) after school. But recent research shows tutoring is most effective when it is done in class or shortly thereafter.
Good generative AI tutoring should not give students answers. Nobody learns anything by being given the answer. Instead, well designed AI asks questions. Questions are thought-provoking. Questions are open-ended. When designed with a Catholic lens these questions from the AI tutor can lead to objective truth. When we asked ChatGPT what Jesus thinks of assisted suicide we received this response: “Some Christians may argue that Jesus's emphasis on love, compassion, and caring for the vulnerable suggests that He would be against assisted suicide, as it involves intentionally ending a life. They may believe that the act of taking one's own life or assisting someone in doing so goes against the value of the sanctity of human life.”
When we asked the AI to write a paper on Jesus's Perspective on Assisted Suicide: An Ethical Analysis, we got the following in under a minute:
This paper aims to explore the hypothetical perspective of Jesus on the controversial issue of assisted suicide, drawing insights from His teachings as recorded in the Bible. While Jesus' explicit teachings do not address assisted suicide, His broader moral and ethical principles of love, compassion, and the sanctity of life offer a foundation for ethical analysis. The paper discusses varying interpretations within Christian thought and presents arguments both in favor of and against assisted suicide from a Christian perspective. It concludes by emphasizing the importance of considering individual beliefs and values when addressing this complex issue.
Assisted suicide is a topic of considerable debate and moral reflection in contemporary society. It involves one person intentionally aiding another in ending their own life, often due to debilitating illness or suffering. In the absence of explicit guidance on this issue in the Bible, this paper attempts to explore how Jesus' teachings and principles might inform the Christian perspective on assisted suicide.
And most importantly, questions lead to learning. And AI tutoring can be 100% customized – the holy grail in education.”
The generalizations in these AI created passages will force a reader and student to go deeper. They will need training in and support of critical thinking. These passages do not take an opinion or form a complete view of important cultural topics. Leaving teachers in a role similar to the Greeks—what is objective truth and how do you (the student) discover it from these passages.
AI as an Administrative Aid
AI may also have the power to give teachers more to work students on these skills of critical thinking and discovering objective truth. It can be a tool that will free teachers’ schedules by:
- Writing lesson plans
- Creating lesson hooks
- Writing exit tickets
- Helping with time-consuming administrative tasks such as grading
By helping teachers with the above tasks, it will give teachers time to go deeper into their content with students. Another interesting concept for students and teachers is moving from subjective grading to objective assessment. We both had experiences where one teacher graded most of our essays with As and then another semester with a new teacher we were given Cs. Might AI bring students and teachers a new level consistent assessment?
Writing is both form and content. It is both academic and artistic. Might AI help the teacher learn from comparing the grading by the teacher with the grading by AI for the same assignment? The teacher’s understanding of the student’s background, abilities, life experiences, etc. is invaluable to grading the heart. A talented teacher can lead the student to see an assignment as producing art rather than performing a task or function. We do not see AI being able to do this critical role of teaching. But together could AI and a teacher become better for all students?
The past few years have seen a significant teacher shortage in this country. This has forced some Catholic schools to hire under qualified teachers. Could young and inexperienced teachers benefit from an AI tutor?
We are also curious to see if AI could be tailored so that teachers can use it to get a snapshot of student progress at any given moment or on any given day. If so, overburdened teachers could quickly and easily identify which students need extra support and which students need more of a challenge.
The AI can never replace the teacher. It is difficult to imagine AI (at this stage) having an understanding of how the personal life of the student affects the desired outcomes. Here we see the value of interpersonal relationships with teachers. The compassion when a student suffers a tragedy. The understanding when a student is having a bad day. The human interaction that encourages and inspires a student has an unqualifiable value in education. We all saw this critical value of teachers during the pandemic when students did not have daily, live interaction with their teachers.
But most importantly, well-designed AI usage can give schools—teachers and administrators—time and resources to make the Catholic charism come even more alive. Teachers, freed from mundane grading and reporting of absences, can now meet with students individually and work with a student and AI to explore the discovery of truth and morality.
This time not spent grading can also be used to help students develop their academic progress while developing artistic talent (writing, music, painting) and that interpersonal relationship can model the virtues (patience, justice, fortitude, temperance). The student learns not just the academic material (from the AI), but how that material can make the student a better person and the world a better place (from the teacher.)
By strategically designing how a school engages with generative AI, it can free up teachers’ time to focus on their students’ humanity and hearts—differentiating a Catholic school from its competitors.
Rob Birdsell is President of Catholic Virtual—an organization partnering with Catholic schools and dioceses to develop and support their online education strategy. Rob is also the founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship in Education (ILEE)—a leadership program for Catholic school leaders, and he continues to support Amerigo Education, which he co-founded in 2016. Previously, Rob was the co-founder and Managing Partner of the Drexel Fund. Earlier in his career, Rob was CEO of the Cristo Rey Network. He began his career as a high school English teacher at Marquette University High School and Loyola High School. A graduate of the University Wisconsin at Madison with his MBA from the Lubar School at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Rob serves on the board of directors of the Cristo Rey Institute, is a fellow at the Pahara Institute, and is a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Hear from Rob regularly as the co-host of the podcast, The Next Class 2.0.
Dan O’Keefe is President of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, NY, where he first began as Principal in 2011. In Catholic education for over 35 years, Dan has been a teacher and/or administrator at several Catholic high schools in New York. He attended Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, NY, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English Literature with a minor in Philosophy. His graduate studies were done at St. Joseph's Seminary (Scripture), New York Institute of Technology (Instructional Technology), and St. John's University (School Building leadership). Dan is an avid runner, whose lifelong pursuits of learning and running began in high school.
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