Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Commencement Address, 5/26/24

The Cate School class of 2024, of which my daughter is member, kindly asked me tdeliver their commencement address this spring. Here's the video.

Here's the transcript:

Alex, trustees, guests, colleagues, and you, class of 2024, it means a great deal to me, being invited to speak to you today, by you, as I hope you’ll see...

 

But first, if you don’t mind, I want to take us back –

all the way back to the cusp of history and pre-history –

to consider a certain brand of Elder,

Priestess, or Shaman,

whose practice was to journey out to the secret caves 

where all the sacred vessels were stored   

– the jars, tablets, knotted ropes – 

and just by looking at them,

somehow manage to see into the past. 

See the future. Other worlds. Gods and monsters. 

Hear their voices somehow. Speak to them.

And on the basis of these exchanges, 

descend again to their communities

to cultivate, to heal, and to preserve them.

 

In retrospect, we can surmise the secret power these sorcerers possessed 

was literacy.

Those jars were basically books.

The caves were libraries.

These were the first readers and writers –

defining experience for their followers, 

casting spells on them the way all good wizards do. 

With words. 

 

That’s why even today, when we break words down into their component parts, 

we call it “spelling.”

(Annie, I’m not sure that’s true, but I so much want it to be, I didn’t check.)

Point is, the sages all agree. 

Words create the world. 

Words are magic.

All schools are Hogwarts… 


But it appears we’ve run into a little competition.


My own first encounter with AI language models happened maybe five years ago.

I’d written an Email to an agent: “Hey Matt, 

just wondering if those people ever got back to you about that project, 

because if not, then, yada-yada-yada.” 

That kind of thing. “Let me know.”

 

A couple days go by, no answer.

Third day, I get two words: “Sounds great!”

And I just thought…not really. 

This happened a few more times, 

me sending off these typical faux-casual professional check-ins, 

him sending back these very brief, very positive non-sequitors. 

I didn’t make that much of it until a few months later

I noticed my own Gmail was starting to suggest replies that I could use: 

Will do! Can’t wait! Sounds great!

And I thought to myself, ‘Holy Toledo, 

is my agent auto-responding to my emails?’

I couldn’t believe it.

It explained a lot…But still…

 

So that’s when I first began to sense something sinister at play.

It wasn’t really until a couple years ago, though, when OpenAI showed up, 

that the alarm bells started going crazy. For all of us.

These new language models have gotten so good, so fast

– at simulating understanding, and stimulating it – 

it’s terrifying.

And it does begin to feel like we might be supplanted soon 

as the premier readers and the writers 

(by which of course I mean wizards) in the sphere;

It seems clear we will accept the supporting role:

Soon enough, teachers like me will only assign computer-generated prompts 

to books that we may or may not have read.  

You’ll get ChatGPT to write the papers for you. 

We’ll get Powerskool to do all the grading and commenting.

We’ll get them (indicate audience) to pay for this nonsense. With Bitcoin.

And no one’ll be the wiser. 

It’ll be the perfect crime.




Ok, that won’t happen. And I don’t mean to sound alarmist.

It’s probably a good thing that we’re asking the Big Questions now:

What does it mean to be ‘literate’ anyway? In 2024. 

And if we are our about to be subsumed by some superior, hollow, intelligence – 

what exactly are we prepared to give up? And is there anything we’d like to save?

 

I find myself thinking back to the days before all this –

You know, when the phones were attached to the wall, had one function,

and if you decided to go for a walk, you might as well have been Odysseus. 

No one knew. 


It could be a lonely, disconnected place, I do recall.

Most of those missions you set out on,

you came back from disappointed, frustrated, heartbroken. 

But it also seemed like every so often some serendipitous something 

would come along to compensate you.

Some unseen angel would slide up and whisper in your ear, 

‘No, psssst, over here,” 

and gift you with something you hadn’t seen coming. 

The most obvious example, for me, probably being that time

I spent five years writing a novel that came to me in about a block-and-a-half – 

On 23rd Street between Second and Third Avenue.  

All I’d wanted was a bagel.


But that was the point. 

That was the abiding lessons here:

That when you went out looking for one thing, and managed to find another, 

that was the best thing that could happen to you.

That was the genius maneuver.

And if you were smart, you should figure out how to do that more often. 

Make yourself available to the thing you didn’t know you were looking for. 

And bring a notebook.


But then so this may be my question – or my biggest fear:

that in this world here today, where we do almost all of our searching online  

– where we know for a fact that every choice, 

every next turn has been set there by some algorithm designed to trap us – 

how are we supposed to hear those angels?

How are we supposed to access any instinct or intuition whatsoever

through the din of: people who bought this item also bought…  

Because that’s the whole game inside that place. 

Homogenizing choice. AND homogenizing language.


I only recently started texting.

My family gave me an Android. 

(I don’t know what message that sends.)

But I’d been thinking you were all a bunch of geniuses with your thumbs.

I didn’t realize: You’re not really typing. 

Mostly you’re accepting the recommendation 

of the word the phone has figured out you probably want. 

Based on patterns. Balls in a pachinko machine.

Which is okay, I guess, until you find yourself conceding,

thinking ‘fine, not the word I was looking for, but close enough.’

You click. Take the road most traveled.

And die a little in the process:

“Sounds great!”




But this is where I turn to you.

And I should preface this by saying,

we try not to play favorites, we teachers, we really do.

But as our old friend Teddy points out, we all have our ‘affinities’. 

Setting aside the fact that my beloved daughter sits among you,

I do feel an affinity with your class.

I taught you as freshmen. And sophomores. AND seniors.

English, more to the point.


You’re a very gratifying bunch to teach English to.

Collectively, you have what makes good readers good. 

Not just keen minds. But open.

You look for a reason to like the text, and learn from it,

not set it aside.

You enjoy uncertainty, ambiguity. You’re challenged by it.

If there’s a happier creature on earth than a baffled Clyde Kye, I haven’t seen it.

Maybe Ember, luxuriating in the description of a broken tooth;

or Thomas, flushing red with frustration at his own thesis, insisting it could be better;

Mel brimming with everything she wants to say, at once; 

Seb politely begging to disagree,

while Tonfai lobs the truth bombs down from the mountaintop;

or Noor bounces at the prospect of revision;

But it’s every damn one of you.

Burak, putting on that anti-intellectual show in class, 

only to turn around and hand in those steel-cut arguments;

Tristan, scouring for the simplest, most indelible route;

Josie, losing her voice–hearing that–and finding it again.

 

You have what makes good writers good. Grit.

The determination to work a sentence til you get it right. Carla. Chloe.

The stubborn commitment to what you mean, what you intend. Sahar. 

Nothing derivative. You only borrow to transform.

You understand the point here: to be a primary source.


I’m not na├»ve, of course. 

I don’t expect you to foreswear the technology. 

You’re going to work with it, test it,

use it in ways that would probably never have occurred to us, 

and that some of us might even object to.

But that’s to be expected, and that’s okay, and here’s why. 


We all know what a ‘foil’ is, in literary terms.

It’s that character who both compares and contrasts with the hero

In a way that helps us see them better.

I confess, I had always thought the reference was to fencing: 

The foil was the guy our hero sword-fought with. 

No. The word ‘foil’ refers to the little silvery cup on which a jewel is mounted, 

to make it shine more brightly.

 

There it is: 

Whatever you do with all the new software coming down the pike at you, 

no matter how innovative or autonomous it seems to be, 

just keep that image in mind.

AI is a foil: shiny, flat, cheap,

there for the purpose of serving the jewel. 

It is not a threat.

It is a clarifying opportunity:

to recognize what it can do for us,

but also what it can’t.

And when it tries, it fails 

(to a discerning eye)

so utterly, so comically by comparison to what we are capable of, at our best,

the point stands out in bold relief:

The jewel – the diamond – 

the most beautiful thing the universe ever came up with – 

is still the individual human…being.

 

You know this. I know you know this. 

I’ve read your work. 

 

One of the unsung perks of teaching: It instills hope.

A hot commodity when there’s so much out there to fear for.

The planet. Justice. Democracy.

As for the Word,

I have to say I am not afraid.

I am not afraid for one good reason. 

And I am looking at it.

 

On behalf of the whole Cate family, your families, 

and everyone else out there upon whom you’re about to cast your spell,

thank you.