With the recent media and artist attention to Open AI programs (e.g. ChatGPT and DALL-E) threatening to replace the human acts of creation we assumed for so long could not be automated, I’ve found myself stressing to students that their emotional experience of being alive in this ever-changing world may prove to be their most valuable asset.

I’ve been telling students for years that the unusual things about themselves they tried to hide in high school are extremely valuable in the adult quest to distinguish themselves. In the future, these quirks may be the way we survive.

In a Feb. 2, New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks expresses thoughts along this same line.

“If, say, you’re a college student preparing for life in an A.I. world, you need to ask yourself: Which classes will give me the skills that machines will not replicate, making me more distinctly human?”

-David Brooks, “In the Age of A.I., Major in Being Human

The human skills he cites include: a distinct personal voice, presentation skills, a childlike talent for creativity, unusual worldviews, empathy, and situational awareness. These are skills I’ve been teaching in my college courses for years and hope to keep teaching until I can’t work anymore. But will students getting a degree in order to be employable in specific career tracks recognize the elusive benefits of humanities courses?

Just last week I was speaking to a group of students that people used to want to get an education to expand their minds and world view in order to be better, more advanced human beings. The pressures to live comfortably in capitalist society have turned heads away from any study that does not promise financial profit. Artistic practice and expression, drama and poetry, and the energy of live connection have been so discredited by the system that equates value with money and success with the ability to make large sums of money that a comeback will take time.

Students don’t want to be glued to their phones and screens. They know they spend too much time connected to their devices but don’t know how else to act. They didn’t have an opportunity to get bored as children, to find surprising and creative ways to entertain themselves and pass the time while their parents’ attention was required elsewhere. They grew up with entertainment on demand and video games they could play in the car or grocery store cart. They didn’t have to make up games. Many weren’t allowed to go outside and explore the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods the way their parents and grandparents did.

Agostino Ramelli’s 1588 Le diverse et artificiose machine (Diverse and artificial machines) via publicdomainreview.org.

Most of my students hated online pandemic instruction and are genuinely relieved to be coming together with other students in the classroom. They don’t want to invest the time and energy of their youth into a field of study only to be replaced by machines. They have also grown up in educational systems that eliminated art programs and stressed math and science and rigidly conservative rules of language with little reward for individuality and expression. In the worst of cases, they haven’t been taught to think at all, let alone think critically.

I’ve watch students squirm with fear and anxiety when given creative freedom in assignments. Many want to be told exactly what to do with a guarantee that they will get a high score if they follow all the rules to a “T”.

The way things are now, I don’t see capitalism coming around to value people and humanity as much as it values property and profit. People have understandably adjusted their values in order to survive in our capitalist economy but do they know what they’ve given up in order to earn dollars and own things? I’d like to hope that people will choose humanity over technology but the trends of recent decades have shown only the wealthy and powerful will get to enjoy the benefits of natural beauty, whole and organic unprocessed foods, access to the arts, and homemade “artisan” goods. Only the bosses can afford to delegate time spent staring at screens to their subordinates while they travel and talk in person to other bosses. Only youth who can afford access to the arts and can work for years without making money are able to pursue the dream of fulfillment and satisfaction in creative life.

I’m only one of hundreds of thousands of aspiring artists whose wings were clipped by the economic realities of survival under American capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Intelligence, talent, education, vision, hard work, discipline – even combined these are no longer enough to secure a stable career.

Revived interest in the humanities should be the result as society inches toward increased computer control of our lives, but unless we demand the poorest and least powerful among us be treated with the same dignity and respect shown to the rich and powerful, only the wealthy will be able to afford such luxurious use of their time.