A Hardworking Protestant’s Unease with “Ease”

By Sarah B. Drummond ’93 B.A.

In her quest to learn to appreciate visual art, Bianca Bosker volunteered as the assistant to a gallerist in Brooklyn.[1] She tagged along with him to various engagements with artists, including one foray to Yale. Students in the Yale School of Art’s Master of Fine Arts program had invited the dealer to meet with them to give advice and feedback. 

I do not worry yet about students using AI to write whole papers, as such plagiarism is still easy to detect. I do worry, however, that if students do not have to wrestle with ideas, or search diligently for the right word, or memorize certain facts and figures, they will not be strong enough to face the future.

In explaining Yale’s place in the contemporary art world, Bosker came to understand graduate school’s privileged position this way: “[The art dealer] had a soft spot for card-carrying MFAs. The way he saw it, if he was going to invest money and time in building an artist’s career, he wanted someone who’d stick with it for the long haul, and the masochism of grad school was apparently a good indicator of seriousness.”[2]

The Virtue of Slog

Hard work is formative and prepares learners to persevere. Higher education and its cultural networks are uneasy about students experiencing too much ease. What, then, will artificial intelligence do to the tacit trust the world places in those who have slogged through reading, writing, testing, creating, and proving in college and graduate school? What will happen to learners, and to the reputation of the programs through which they slog, if AI takes what Bosker calls “masochism,” and what I might call gritty, hard work, out of the equation?

This question relates not just to education, but all settings that value hard work, including the spiritual work required for growth in faith. I recently talked with students in a class I teach on vocational discernment about the “Protestant Work Ethic.” I entered the discussion with the assumption that I was going to disrupt their roundly positive associations with the Reformation’s advancement of the proposal that all human work can glorify God. I felt smug as I prepared to connect—cue the ominous music—the Protestant Work Ethic to capitalism’s excesses and imperialism, expecting heroically to disabuse students of unexamined cultural myths in the way teachers always want to do. 

I could not have been further off-base. At the utterance of the phrase Protestant Work Ethic, some students practically spat.

Flustered by their reaction, I asked why students would have a negative reaction to the term. Two of them helped me to understand a growing generational divide, where 20-somethings have been trained to consider back-breaking work to be unjust, even if its results are pleasing. I took a straw poll. Students over 35 had a positive viewpoint on the Protestant Work Ethic, students under 35 thought it a scam; the lone outlier was a 26-year-old student of color in whose immigrant household hard work and godliness are considered inseparable. The two 20-something spitters, mind you, are among the hardest workers I teach. Their negative outlook on the worship of hard work does not correlate with laziness.

Just two days after my course’s discussion on the Protestant Work Ethic, a different perspective came my way when Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, preached at YDS in Marquand Chapel. In meditating on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as described in Mark’s Gospel, Williams described what Satan was offering Jesus as “the ultimate shortcut, the ultimate quick fix.” Ease conflated with the work of the devil? That worked for me, which might be a byproduct of my being not 35, but 53. At crucial moments, the Gospels suggest Christians should be wary of slick and simple ways out of tough situations. When Peter rebukes Jesus for foreshadowing his suffering and death, Jesus rebukes him back: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33b). The savior himself challenges the notion that life, and even death, are supposed to be easy. 

The Christian tradition, and a Western culture shot through with Christian values, has an uneasy relationship with ease. Now, though, is a good time to think through that vestigial impulse more carefully: AI is coming, and it will make life easier in meaningful ways that have implications for justice, pedagogy, and preparation for leadership. We can acknowledge this as good news on important fronts. For instance: 

• Leveling playing fields. You might have heard it said, “Through grade three, kids learn to read; after grade three, they read to learn.” I would add, “Through high school, students learn to write. After high school, they write to show they’ve learned.” For various reasons—such as having attended large high schools that lacked resources for individualized instruction, or having pursued undergraduate majors in STEM fields—many, if not most, of my students today never had a teacher walk them through and then coach them on the basics of writing. This lacuna constitutes a huge disadvantage for such students, not just during their years in theological education but in their eventual careers, given the high expectations placed on Christian ministers for clear, compelling communication. This is to say nothing of difficulties of writing that students with dyslexia and other cognitive differences encounter. AI can aid their efforts and allow their thoughts to shine through.

• Giving voice to the previously unheard. AI makes possible self-expression for those who would otherwise be unable to insert themselves into dialogue. Consider the person for whom English is a foreign language, writing in a U.S. school. The work of translation forces them to enter debate slowly, yet the hotter the debate, the faster it charges ahead. More and more diverse communities expect all their stakeholders to have a place at the table. With AI, more voices can make themselves heard, whereas previously only a small elite with disproportional access to educational options could find a seat.

• Preserving energy for that which is truly important. When a student with insufficient training in writing or a cognitive difference, or a person from a marginalized group without previous access to cultural microphones, uses AI to express their ideas, they have more energy to mobilize action. When AI can sort through datasets of previously unexplorable density, leaders can make evidence-driven decisions and carry them out, rather than entering decision-making already exhausted from the work it took to gather knowledge. AI does grunt work for which leaders do not have time if they are to rise to the expectations that communities have of them, both for availability and for understanding their needs.

A Hard-Knocks Life

Yet routine writing, analysis, and information retrieval ought not to be understood as grunt work only. With all the positive outcomes that AI can make possible by composing emails, gathering the accumulated wisdom of a group, and predicting outcomes, certain forms of learning become seemingly less important. I do not worry yet about students using AI to write whole papers, as such plagiarism is still easy to detect (as I often say, “It’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been easier to catch cheaters”). I do worry, however, that if students do not have to wrestle with ideas, or search diligently for the right word, or memorize certain facts and figures, they will not be strong enough to face the future.

What do I mean by “strong,” in this instance? A caterpillar freed from a carapace before it is fully formed will not, as a butterfly, be strong enough to fly. The clay brick not pressed down, wrung out, and hardened in a fire will not be strong enough to hold up a wall. We do not yet know what AI will cause the learner to lose. 

Now, in this dawning era of AI, is a good time to explore new ways educators might challenge students with hard-knock forms of education, and reap hard work’s benefits, for we can be sure they will be called upon to lead amidst what is still, in so many ways, a hard-knock life.

Sarah Drummond ’93 B.A. is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. Her most recent book is Intentional Leadership In-Between Seasons (Pilgrim Press, 2022). Her blog on ministerial leadership can be found here.

1. Bianca Bosker, Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey Among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See (Penguin Random House, 2024).

2. Bosker audiobook, Chapter 4, 1:46:00-1:46:16.