Magnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. We can profitably speak of at least three eras.
First, what is often called the Romantic era of chess. Here is how Weisenthal describes it:
In the old days, high-level chess was a swashbuckling game filled with daring piece sacrifices and head-spinning multi-move combinations where the winner would pull off wins seemingly out of nowhere.
Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Weisenthal explains, chess became more methodical. New champions would still take chances, but they were studied risks, more considered, and often pre-tested in preparation games. Players would study all past games by opponents analyzed through computers. This meant that the spontaneous move was more often than not beaten back by the prepared answer.
As the study of chess became more rigorous, these wild games became more and more rare at the highest level, as daring (but theoretically weak) combinations became more easy to repel…. Modern chess champions have won by building crushing, airtight, positional superiorities against their opponents, grinding them down and forcing a resignation. The chess is amazing, although frequently less of a high-wire act.
The third era of recent chess might be called the computer age. It began, for better or worse, when IBM’s Deep Blue super computer beat the great chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. The current generation of players (like Carlsen) were raised playing chess against computers. This has changed the way the game is played.
In an essay a while back in the NYRB, Kasparov reflected on what the rise of chess-playing computers meant.
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.
One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic. The romantic era of elegant and swashbuckling chess is over. But so too is the rational, calculated, grinding chess that Weisenthal describes as the style of the late 20th century. Since all players are trained by the logical rigidity of playing against computers, playing by pure logic will rarely give one side the ultimate advantage.
Which brings us to Carlsen and the buzz about his victory at the World Chess Championships. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness,” a concept apparently developed by the computer science professor Ken Regan. The idea has been described recently by Tyler Cowen:
Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.
For Weisenthal, the rise of “nettlesomeness” signifies the "new era of post-modern chess. It's not about uncorking crazy, romantic brilliancies. And it's not about achieving crushing, positional victories. It's about being as cool as a computer while your opponent does things that are, well, human."
I am not sure Weisenthal gives full credit to Carlsen’s nettlesomeness. Yes, Carlsen does engage in a bit of emotional warfare—the getting up from the table, trying to throw off one’s opponent. But his nettlesomeness also involves “his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes.” This is important.
In Kasparov’s earlier essay, he also describes his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world's highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. The lesson Kasparov drew from this is that computer-assisted chess magnifies the importance of human creativity:
The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.
One may, however, question Kasparov’s conclusion. The computers did even out the match. As he admits, “My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine.” More often than not, the result of computer-assisted chess is a draw.
What Carlsen’s victory may show, however, is that at a time when most players learn against machines and become technical wizards, it is those players who rise above the calculating game and are adept at finding the surprising or at least unsettling moves that will, at the very top of the sport, prove victorious. That is what Regan and Cowen mean by nettlesomeness. All of which suggests that, at least for the top chess player in the world, chess remains a human endeavor in which creativity can be enlisted to discombobulate human opponents playing increasingly like machines.
For your weekend read, take a long gander at Weisenthal’s essay. It includes simulated chess games to illustrate his point! Happy reading and playing.
I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.
So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.
The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.
Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.
Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.
There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.
According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read. Here is what the group says in a statement:
Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.
What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.
There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.
Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.
It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.
It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.
In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.
And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.
If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.
I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.
You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:
We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.
If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will overtime be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.
In 1947, at the age of 18, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a short essay in the The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College campus newspaper. The article was titled, “The Purpose of Education.” In short, it argued that we must not confuse education with knowledge.
King began with the personal. Too often, he wrote, “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.” In other words, too many think that college is designed to teach either means or ends, offering the secrets that unlock the mysteries of our futures.
King takes aim at both these purposes. Beyond the need for education to make us more efficient, education also has a cultural function. In this sense, King writes, Education must inculcate the habit of thinking for oneself, what Hannah Arendt called Selbstdenken, or self-thinking.
“Education,” King writes, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born.
For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of of propaganda.” “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
To think for oneself is not the same as critical thinking. Against the common assumption that college should teach “critical reasoning,” King argues that critical thinking alone is insufficient and even dangerous: “Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” The example King offers is that of Eugene Talmadge, who had been governor of Georgia. Talmadge “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America.” He was Phi Beta Kappa. He excelled at critical thinking. And yet, Talmadge believed that King and all black people were inferior beings. For King, we cannot call such men well educated.
The lesson the young Martin Luther King Jr. draws is that intelligence and critical reasoning are not enough to make us educated. What is needed, also, is an educational development of character:
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
Present debates about higher education focus on two concerns. The first is cost. The second is assessment. While the cost is high for many people, it is also the case the most students and their families understand that what colleges offer is priceless. But that is only true insofar as colleges understand their purpose, which is not simply to disseminate knowledge or teach critical thinking, but is, rather, to nurture character. How are we to assess such education? The demand for assessment, as well meaning as it is, drives education to focus on measurable skills and thus moves us away from the purposes of education as King rightly understands them.
The emerging debate about civic education is many things. Too often it is a tired argument over the “core” or the “canon.” And increasingly it is derailed by arguments about service learning or internships. What really is at issue, however, is a long-overdue response to the misguided dominance of the research-university model of education.
Colleges in the United States were, up through the middle of the 20th century, not research-driven institutions. They were above all religiously affiliated institutions and they offered general education in the classics and the liberal arts. Professors taught the classics outside of their specific disciplines. And students wrestled with timeless questions. This has largely changed today where professors are taught to specialize and think within their disciplinary prejudices. Even distribution requirements fail to make a difference insofar as students forced to take a course outside their discipline learn simply another disciplinary approach. They learn useful knowledge and critical thinking. But what is missing is the kind of general education in the “accumulated experience of social living” that King championed.
I am not suggesting that all specialization is bad or that we should return to religious-affiliated schools. Not in the least. But many of us know that we are failing in our responsibilities to think about what is important and to teach students a curriculum designed to nurture self-thinking and citizenship. We avoid this conversation because it is hard, because people disagree today on whether we should read Plato or Confucius or study Einstein or immunology. Everyone has their discipline to defend and few faculty are willing or able to think about an education that is designed for students and citizens.
Let’s stop bad mouthing all colleges. Much good happens there. Yet let’s also recall King’s parting words in his essay:
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!
King’s The Purpose of Education is your weekend read.