The Reason for Human Reasoning

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Issue 15, Volume 111

By Isabelle Lam 

Four years ago, computer science (CS) teacher Peter Brooks made the decision to stop teaching his Human Reasoning course in favor of a more modern one: Artificial Intelligence (AI). This was not an easy decision for Brooks, but due to his software development roots, he wanted to create new things. “It’s a little bit harder when you’re a teacher to create something entirely new. I had a chance to do that with [former computer science teacher Michael] Zamansky [...]. The two of us created the second semester of Intro to CS together, and then I [created] the Human Reasoning course [and] the AI course,” Brooks explained.

The AI class was hard to formulate; Brooks took a sabbatical semester off to focus on creating the course. Since many people have a misconception of what AI actually is, he faced dilemmas such as what approach to teaching he’d take. “The difficulty with the AI class is that most people think of [AI] these days as consisting of machine learning. Machine learning is only a small part of AI,” Brooks explained. He didn’t have enough material for a year-long course, but limiting AI to just a semester would mean that he could only touch upon a sliver of machine learning. Ultimately, AI ended up being a one-semester course. In the class, Brooks makes sure to not only focus on the CS aspects of AI, but also on real-world applications and impacts, such as AI-generated unemployment, privacy and surveillance problems, and military issues. “Those are interesting and societally important to think about,” he said.

Junior Alvin Li, however, is disappointed to see the class go, replaced once again by Human Reasoning. Since spring semester, he has been auditing the class because he wasn’t able to obtain the course despite his large interest in CS career options, specifically AI-related topics. “There was a large range of post-AP CS classes that I wanted to take [and] one of the more interesting ones was [AI] because it was taught by Brooks, who I had for Intro [to CS], and he was a really interesting teacher,” Li explained.

Now, Brooks thinks it’s important to revive his Human Reasoning course due to recent events. “We’ve been through the Trump era. And, as a result, [...] we have had difficulties [...] telling truth from fiction,” he explained. The course would emphasize teaching students critical thinking. “At this point, I feel it is more valuable [...] for students to take the Human Reasoning course than to take [AI], and I wish I could have [taught the class] during the last four years when I think we needed it more,” he said.

Human Reasoning would also teach students how to find credible sources of information, make fruitful estimates, and ask interesting questions. For example, queries like “How can you possibly answer a legitimate question in two different, contradictory ways?” pepper class discussions and center the course. Brooks seeks to answer these questions, despite their more philosophical nature. “Well, your head blows up. We suffer those consequences in a few students, but we still have most of the class left,” he explained. In Human Reasoning, Brooks also wants to teach students to not rely on Google for all of their information. “Do not depend on Google [...] because Google does not know very large quantities of things,” he said.

Aside from differences in content between the two courses, another difference is that Human Reasoning does not have any prerequisites, while AI requires the student to have passed or to currently be taking Advanced Placement CS. Human Reasoning is a math class and is set to fulfill the Math 4 requirement, which requires students to take a math class their senior year. “If you need pre-calc[ulus], you can’t replace it with this course. That’s why it’s likely to be a senior level course except for the folks who’ve taken pre-calc[ulus] in second grade,” he said. He mentioned that if the class is oversubscribed, the Program Office might select students based on different criteria. “It will probably be by height,” he joked.

Though Brooks could preserve both his AI and Human Reasoning courses by dropping his Intro to CS class, he explained that he treasures the opportunity to introduce students to a completely new subject. Since students may come into Stuyvesant with prior knowledge of almost all other subjects (i.e. English, mathematics, and science), it’s very rare for teachers to teach topics that students have never encountered before. He’s also able to introduce students to a new way of learning that promotes individual thinking. “I will teach you the basics, but the next level? You have to figure out [yourself...] This is a way to open up a bunch of people’s minds to something brand new and powerful,” he said. Despite this motivation, Brooks may also have an ulterior motive for students who retain this problem-solving knowledge. “[It] makes me look good,” he revealed.

As with in-person and remote learning, Brooks is open to people auditing his classes. “I have no restrictions on that. [...] The more the merrier, I’m very happy to have auditors,” he said. However, because of projected plans of returning to in-person learning in September, the number of people who can audit will be limited. “There’s a limited number of seats on the air conditioner for people who are auditing,” Brooks said with a smile.