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What Are English Teachers For?

By David Jepson, TASIS The American School in England, Thorpe, United Kingdom

Introduction: The Role of English Teachers

I used to love diagramming sentences. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this procedure, diagramming offered a simple, visual way to show the grammatical relationships among words in a sentence. Although diagramming was probably introduced to students in Middle School, I used to spend some time with Upper School students on it. For the students who learned how diagramming worked, it was often an enjoyable way to demonstrate and clarify their understanding of the structure of the English language.

But at some point in the 1980s, as I recall, the study of grammar as a stand-alone topic was dropped from Upper School English courses. There were good reasons for this, perhaps, and I suppose that one could argue that students’ foreign language courses were a better home for an emphasis on the grammatical structure of language than the English course. I mention this here just as an example of how the English teacher’s role has changed. From what I can see, I doubt that an Upper School English teacher today would be expected to focus any part of the course on grammar.

Is it time for the role of English teachers to change yet again, now that generative artificial intelligence programs are becoming widespread? Should the teaching of writing be dropped from Upper School English courses now that AI applications like ChatGPT are available to students?

English teachers in secondary and higher education certainly had a challenging school year in 2022-23. Many periodicals have published articles like the Atlantic’s “The First Year of AI College Ends in Ruin” (, which describes the great difficulties teachers now have in determining the degree to which AI is responsible for student writing. Next school year, many English teachers will probably demand that all writing assignments be handwritten in class with no technology. The English classroom may become a neo-Luddite sanctuary from the modern world. Alternatively, maybe some English teachers will just drop the teaching of writing altogether. This surely sounds like a mistake, but since ChatGPT can quite easily produce the 5-paragraph essay that English teachers typically assign, it is certainly time for English teachers to ask what they really want their students to learn. In fact, given that the use of AI is likely to become even more embedded in all forms of communication in today’s – and tomorrow’s – world, an even more radical question arises: What are English teachers for?

To answer this, perhaps a place to start would be to recognize that programs like ChatGPT “differ profoundly from how humans reason and use language,” in the words of Noam Chomsky ( Chomsky’s major point in this article is that ChatGPT and programs like it mostly work by statistical prediction instead of developing an underlying "deep structure" model of language. As Chomsky further says, the human mind “seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.” If we believe Chomsky, artificial intelligence seems to operate quite differently from human intelligence. Do we really want to surrender all human communication to a non-human form of intelligence? Of course not. Regardless of the extent to which writing remains in the English curriculum, what really matters is the preservation of truly human intelligence. Below, I will briefly outline three areas in which English teachers can nurture and cultivate their students’ human intelligence.

Ideals: The Principle of Excellence

When Socrates was put in prison by the Athenian authorities for corrupting the youth, his friends asked him why he remained in jail despite having opportunities to escape. He answered that physicists might say that the cause of his being in the prison was that his bones happened to be situated in this location, but that he would say the cause of his being in prison was that he thought it best to be there. Throughout the dialogues of Plato, we learn that understanding the meaning of anything is in terms of its excellence.

For example, we learn about dancing partly by watching a great dancer perform. By distinguishing between a great dancer and a lesser one, we see that dancing is an activity in which one can succeed or fail. If there were no differences in degree, we might still be able to identify the activity of dancing, but we would not understand it. We understand by the principle of excellence through the recognition of differences of degree.

A simple demonstration of this idea can be seen if we were to draw two circles on a piece of paper. One of them is likely to be a better circle than the other – better in that it more closely approximates perfect circularity. Although we could classify both drawings as “circles,” it is by distinguishing the better circle from the worse that we understand what circularity means. Through the difference in degree between the drawn circles, we can project the ideal of the perfect circle.

This Platonic approach is inherent in the English teacher’s attempts to help students learn to communicate effectively. For instance, by comparing a sample of a student’s writing with one written by a published author – or perhaps even by comparing a sample of a student’s writing with one generated by ChatGPT – the English teacher can show how the pieces of writing differ in degree, and from that difference, we can potentially project the ideal for that piece of writing.

Identifying and classifying are important operations of intelligence, but truly human intelligence operates by idealizing. By teaching students to apply the principle of excellence and to seek and long for – that is, love – the highest ideals, like truth, goodness, and beauty, the English teacher can help young people develop judgment and taste and can contribute something unique and indispensable to their intellectual, moral, and aesthetic growth.

Imagination: The Power of Creativity

The 17th century French mathematician René Descartes is known as one of the most important makers of the modern world. His great contribution to philosophy was in his separation of mind and matter. The mind, or subjective experience, is “in-here”; matter, or objective reality, is “out-there.” This absolute separation provided the necessary framework for modern science to develop its relentless focus on “objective reality” through the tools of mathematics and experiment in support of the reason (logic, rationality, etc.). However, Blaise Pascal, Descartes’s contemporary and an equally adept mathematician, proposed a third dimension between this mind-matter dualism: the heart. By this he meant an intuitive or imaginative way of knowing that was, in some ways, superior to reason: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

This same intermediary between mind and matter was called the imagination by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th century. He explained that the imagination on one hand was an agent of perception, that is, an active power that transformed raw sensory data into knowledge. On the other hand, the imagination, when harnessed by a poet, was also the power of creativity and creative thought. Maybe Coleridge had in mind Theseus’s scornful words in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact. . . .

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. (V, i, 4-8, 12-17)

Theseus’s dismissive attitude toward the imagination and toward poets seems a bit excessive, especially given that he himself is the poetic creation of Shakespeare. English teachers call this “irony.”

The imagination is a power distinct from the “cool reason” of mathematics and science, and the study of the imagination, that is, the study of poetry and poetic language, gives students a kind and depth of insight that is impossible to achieve in any other way. The English teacher is the guardian of the flame of imagination and poetry, and a world without them would be cold and inhuman.

Literature: The Hope of Humanity

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has fallen out of favour somewhat in recent years, probably due to his lack of enthusiasm for certain superficialities of outlook that he observed once he had the opportunity to experience Western civilization first-hand after his exile from the former Soviet Union. However, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and for a period of time in the 20th century, his was the most powerful public voice of conscience and freedom.

In his Nobel Prize Lecture, he discussed different scales of values throughout the world and raised an alarm:

"For humanity as a whole, packed into one single clump, such mutual lack of

understanding carries the threat of a quick and stormy death. Given the

existence of six, or four, or even two scales of values, there can be no

united world, no united humanity: we will be torn apart by this difference

in rhythm, this difference in oscillation. We will not survive on one Earth,

just as no man can survive with two hearts" (Solzhenitsyn, 17).

But he also could see a solution to this problem: “Who is there who might possibly be able to instil in the bigoted, narrow, stubborn human essence the grief and joy of those faraway others, the perception of a range of facts and delusions never personally experienced? … Fortunately, there does exist in the world a means to this end! It is art. It is literature” (Solzhenitsyn, 18-19).

Solzhenitsyn argued that learning empathy for others living in different places and times enhances our humanity and might be the salvation of the world. No stranger to oppression, violence, and lies, Solzhenitsyn nevertheless believed in the power of truth to overcome the lie, and in doing so, he amplified the message of William Faulkner, whose Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech 20 years earlier had concluded by saying:

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal,

not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but

because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and

endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is

his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of

the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and

sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."

Literature is the English teacher’s speciality; in no other school subject are students likely to experience the illuminating ideals of human existence so deeply. It is through world literature that humanity can most eloquently speak words of hope to students today.

Conclusion: Human Intelligence

Some of you may have recognized the origin of this essay’s title in Martin Heidegger’s “What Are Poets For?” This magnificently opaque work was based on a speech he gave in 1946 about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The origin of his title was, in turn, taken from a line in a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin that goes: “and what are poets for in a destitute time?” For Hölderlin and Heidegger, a “destitute time” was one in which the god has departed from the people, but the people don’t know it yet.

Heidegger characterized our godless modern civilization as a relentless parade of the “fury of self-assertion which is resolutely self-reliant” (Heidegger, 114). Opposed to modern people’s self-reliant self-assertion are the poets who dare to “sing the healing whole in the midst of the unholy” (Heidegger, 137).

Heidegger seemed unsure whether or not Rilke was the poet needed in this “destitute time”; however, I would suggest that Rilke can indeed be seen as the kind of poet who speaks in accents far removed from the banalities of artificial intelligence, and who therefore exemplifies the kind of human intelligence that English teachers need to promote. In this spirit, I will conclude with a poem of Rilke’s called the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which was written 115 years ago when Rilke was working as a secretary for the sculptor Auguste Rodin in Paris.

In this poem, the speaker begins describing the headless statue of an ancient god with penetrating eloquence, but as the poem reaches its end, it seems that the statue is somehow viewing us; viewing, evaluating, and judging. The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is a profound work of imagination about a broken statue whose gleaming, glistening brilliance not only dazzles and bursts like a star but also challenges and astounds.

We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

I am no expert in Rilke’s poetry, but it seems to me that this poem, imperfect though it may be, dazzles and challenges as much as the headless statue was said to. Like the poem’s speaker, our apprehension of the qualitative difference between our minds and the ideal beauty of the human/divine image -- bedimmed though it has been by time and chance – is almost overwhelming. Almost, because the demand for the heart’s transformation in the poem’s last sentence provides a way, maybe the only way, to respond with imaginative integrity. I leave this with you as an example of what English teachers are for – we are here to lead our students on journeys to the deep heart’s core.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “What Are Poets For?” in Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper Perennial. 2001.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Nobel Lecture on Literature, tr. Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row. 1972.

David Jepson started his career in secondary education some 45 years ago as an English teacher in Massachusetts. He has taught in upstate New York, San Francisco, Switzerland, and for many years at TASIS The American School in England, where he also served in various administrative positions, including Head of Upper School, Academic Dean, and Director of IT. Currently, David is Director of Studies for the TASIS Foundation, which is the organization that supports the TASIS schools in Switzerland, England, Portugal, and Puerto Rico. David can be reached at

Editor's note: This story was featured in our 2023 ICTE fall newsletter. Click here to see the entire issue.

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