College Quarterly
Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4
Reviews Wikipedia
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Ever since the 1960s, elementary and secondary school curricula and pedagogy have been hotly contested. Worries about preparedness for postsecondary schooling, basic literacy, the dearth of scientific knowledge and mathematical skills, the collapse of compulsory history courses and the all-embracing concern for “values” are matched by debates over the proper role of technologically assisted learning, increased reliance on mechanical (multiple-choice) testing, issues of “student-centred” classrooms, the promotion of “creativity,” “group work” and “problem solving” are only a few of the topics that have won attention.

Whereas the “progressives” seemed to be dominant early on, it is plain that the tide has turned and that the expectations of what I will label a “corporatist” agenda have overtaken and marginalized those who were once in thrall to the likes of A. S. Neill and Margaret Mead. Saleable skills, practical training and integration into a leaner, meaner, global “information society” now prevail as educational objectives. College presidents are no longer embarrassed to say that education is a business and business is the stuff and substance of education (increasingly defined as “training”). It is in this atmosphere that a recent review of postsecondary education in Ontario offered as its chief recommendations that Ontario colleges should move enthusiastically into apprenticeships and get busy building an electronic library (Rae, 2005).

At this point, I would normally launch into a denunciation of “philistine lite” and urge the restoration of interest in the humanities and social sciences, a reconstruction of educational aims in terms of social consciousness and critical thinking. Not this time. Instead, I want to draw attention to a problem about which both “vocationalists” and “humanists” can probably agree. Whether interested in students’ abilities to research and write reports or essays on subjects as diverse as philosophy, pharmaceuticals and ferrous metals, it is apparent that many high school graduates have little basic understanding of how to do elementary research.

For reasons that escape me, not only administrators, teachers and students but also librarians have become smitten with the concept of a “virtual library” in which “resources” (formerly known as books, periodicals, films and so on) are available electronically and instantaneously. No more musty card catalogues, no more browsing in the stacks. The ubiquitous World Wide Web has ensnared us with the pertinent effect that few college entrants have previously been asked to read extensively, fewer have been required to write a great deal, and almost none seem to have acquired the ability to use a “resource centre” to anything like optimal advantage. The prevailing emphasis on “process” and “problem solving” has yielded, it sometimes seems, a generation and more of young people who are profoundly “culturally illiterate”. They cannot (and cannot imagine why anyone would want to) name the second Prime Minister of Canada or find Algeria on a map (in fact, a recent study shows that about 15% of Americans cannot find the United States on a map!). Their main concern: “Must I use APA format?”

The rationale for this sad state of affairs is that storing information in our brains is wasteful and that any dull little fact that somehow becomes salient can be easily located on the “net.” Stuffing our cerebra with data only overloads our neural circuitry with “too much information” and is said to be akin to a merchant trying to store goods in an overloaded warehouse when “just in time” delivery is available from suppliers.

I use these commercial metaphors consciously because I believe that they are most apt in an institutional system dedicated to corporate consumerism rather than genuine education. I use them to underscore my contention that what is hilariously called “critical thinking” is merely Orwellian for acquiescence in a scholarly game in which all problems, definitions and solutions are established in advance and students are deemed successful when they can mimic the thought processes of their teachers (or whoever it is that “designs” curricula for “delivery”). We speak of student “mastery” of material, and thereby students are “mastered.”

After a dozen or so years of indoctrination, of course, students are complicit in the game. They already disdain any knowledge that is not immediately useful, any skill that is not marketable and any insight that challenges any of their assumptions about what the world is about or what education is for. It is not that they are completely dim. Many recognize the charade. Many appreciate that school time is a substantial waste of time but is nonetheless a ritual that must be performed if satisfactory (or any) employment is to be found, and many—in their “off-duty” hours— seek stimulation and creativity in non-academic ways.

I am, of course, more than happy to acknowledge that my dismal portrait of colleges and their potential “products” is by no means exhaustive. A respectable number of students have a good inkling about what education might be. They are thrilled when they get some and disappointed when they do not. They are, however, not my concern for the purpose of these remarks. These are the already competent and self-motivated students who need little but direction, constructive criticism and intellectual support. They (the fortunate ones in this educational triage) are already doing fine.

My focus here is also not upon those who languish, apparently all but unreachably at the bottom of every class and who might be better assisted in a system with smaller classes and more direct teacher-student contact but who are often slip through the cracks (chasms?) in the current circumstances.

I am mainly concerned here with the middling sort of student—potentially outstanding but temporarily awash, largely because of an inadequate academic background. Specifically, I wish to deal with a subject that falls within the framework outlined here and has lately become controversial among those who hope that students may acquire systematic methods and some accurate information as part of their overall education.

Confronted with a research project, I have always thought it reasonable to begin with a dictionary and an encyclopedia. These enduring tools of the Enlightenment are wholly inadequate in terms of addressing particular topics in anything that remotely resembles an academic study; however, they do provide two essentials—a definition of what the student is expected to discuss and a cursory overview of the basic elements related to that discussion.

For many years, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica have been regarded as the standard against which all comparable efforts must be judged. Of course, there have always been competitors and some of these are admirable. These include productions for children, inexpensive but competent substitutes for “popular” audiences and specialized works for “niche” markets. Above my desk, for example, I have the Encyclopedia of the Arts, the Encyclopedia of the Biological Sciences, the Encyclopedia of Educational Research, the Encyclopedia of Management and about twenty others. I also have the Dictionary of Business and Economics, the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, the Dictionary of Earth Sciences, the Sports Dictionary and, again, about two dozen others. Occasionally, we find a “national” encyclopedia that provides an intensive examination of a cultural heritage, with Mel Hurtig’s valiant but ill-fated Canadian Encyclopedia being a pertinent case in point. They are all worthy contributions to human knowledge.

Of late, however, there has come into the mix an innovation that has elicited decidedly mixed reactions. It is Wikipedia. I do not know the source of the name (I suppose I could look it up), but I do know that “wiki” is Hawaiian for speedy (airport shuttle buses at Honolulu International Airport are—or were when I most recently visited the islands—known as “Wiki-Wiki” buses); they did not disappoint hurried travelers. Wikipedia is another matter. It is also immensely successful, if the frequency of references to it in my students’ papers is any truthful indication.

And that, it seems, is the rub.

If anyone is unfamiliar with this innovation, it has several distinctive features. The most controversial is that the items in this on-line encyclopedia are written by its readers. Want to provide the world with information about a topic currently missing from Wikipedia? Want to correct some inaccuracy in a current article? No problem! Readers can furnish new material or can edit existing entries more or less at will. This is not an encyclopedia dominated by experts and certified authorities; it is a “democratic” experiment. This approach, like any concession to democracy, has its dangers. It is open to abuse.

Perhaps the most well-known instance involves the subject of one entry, Mr. John Seigenthaler Sr., who was on Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s staff in the early 1960s. This is what was said about him: “he was thought to be directly involved in the Kennedy assassination of both John and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” The entry was utterly false, but it took Mr. Seigenthaler over four months to have this defamatory “biography” erased. Says Mr. Seigenthaler: “One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer” (Seigenthaler, 2005).

I can empathize with Mr. Seigenthaler. A couple of years ago, in a state of utter boredom, I “googled” myself to see what I had been up to. Along with the usual references to published articles here and there was a reference to my “affair” with Truman Capote. The item had been originally published in a local Toronto newspaper. This interested me because I am a confirmed heterosexual (and a “recovering homophobe”). The affair was apparently most intense in 1945, the year of my birth. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that the late author did, in fact, have a relationship with a gentleman who shared my slightly unusual name. Both Mr. Capote and (I assume) his lover are now quite dead. I was not distressed at the coincidence and the mixing of references to both Mr. Capote’s partner and me, but by the fact that entries about the “original” Howard Doughty contained a link to me at my college address. Anyone ignorant of history and eager to get the scoop on Mr. Capote’s love life was encouraged to contact me (his putative partner) at either Seneca College or another publisher for whom I work. Like Mr. Seigenthaler, it took me about four months to have this link removed. His case was much more serious than mine, of course, but the point is plain: on-line information is largely uncontrolled and laws about slander, libel and so on are murky when it comes to the Internet. Mr. Seigenthaler is lucky. He is the founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a former editorial page editor at USA Today. When he is miffed, he can get people’s attention. Not everyone is so well-connected and, as Mr. Seigenthaler says, his “highly personal story about Internet character assassination … could be your story.”

There have been consequences. Sensitive to both the flagrant abuse of the medium and, I suppose, its possible legal ramifications, Wikipedia founder Jim Wales has introduced some controls. Always aware of the possibility of “information vandalism,” Wikipedia’s own website is transparent. It admits that one of its flaws is that it “allows vandalism, inaccuracy, inconsistency or uneven quality, and opinion. It has also been criticized for system bias, preference of consensus [over] credentials, and a perceived lack of accountability and authority when compared with traditional encyclopedias.” This, after all, is the risk of democracy; however, as the crusty old sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, opined: “The only cure for democracy is more democracy.” This fits well with Wales’ vision. “The theory,” writes Evan Derkacz (2005, 15 December), “was that a large enough and invested enough community would fix errors and vandalism quickly, as their participation would foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. There's also a small editorial staff on hand to handle complaints. This project is attached to the larger concept that a group of ‘ordinary’ or ‘untrained’ citizens is intelligent, dedicated and, perhaps most important, good-willed enough to fuel and monitor a project.” In the wake of the Seigenthaler incident, Wales has been resilient enough to put “expert” monitors in place to ward off such troubles in the future.

Meantime, other news about Wikipedia is good. The mid-December issue of the prestigious British science magazine, Nature, compared Wikipedia with the universal template, the Encyclopedia Britannica. The findings (which the Britannica has been quick to dismiss) put Wikipedia in a comparatively good light. Nature recruited acknowledged authorities in a number of fields to “peer review” forty-two entries in both Wikipedia and the Britannica. It came as no surprise that Wikipedia made mistakes. As well, there are concerns about the quality of writing, which is sometimes unclear, rambling and occasionally incomprehensible. What was startling was the discovery that the Britannica was not extraordinarily more accurate. The ratio of errors—some minor, some less so—was about 4:3 to Britannica’s advantage. Still, when the results are that close between authoritative academics and the rabble, something is plainly up.

Corporate media and educators attuned to their message speak enthusiastically about the virtues of interactivity; for the most part, however, this is code for what B. F. Skinner famously called “operant conditioning”. In this “gerbil pedagogy,” students press appropriate keys and are provided with academic “food pellets” in the form of grades (cf. Barrett and Doughty, 1977, April).

Wikipedia, in the alternative, opens up the whole concept of interactive, bottom-up media to authentic participation by a multitude of patron-users. Wikipedia is now the 37th most visited website. It has about four million articles. It is translated into two hundred languages. And it is free!

No one, of course, should be under the illusion that its content rivals the detailed data to be found in professional sources, but neither does any encyclopedia. As a quick introduction to most topics, however, it is almost as reliable as its established rivals and, when used with this caveat in mind, can be helpful as a first step in the research process.

Perhaps the most positive indication of its potential success (Wales insists that his goal is to equal if not to exceed the standards of the Encyclopedia Britannica) is the reaction to the article in Nature. Shortly after its publication, Britannica Senior Vice President Michael Ross appeared on the CBC radio program, “The Current” (2005, 21 December). Defensive in style and vague in content, Mr. Ross spoke demeaningly of Wikipedia. He insisted that the comparison of relative inaccuracy was very much in the Britannica’s favour and declared that the methodology employed by Nature magazine was fundamentally flawed, while admitting that he had not actually read it. His aristocratic trust in the superiority of the certifiably superior had a faintly snooty odor and seemed to carry with it the impression that plebian insurrection was at hand. “Well,” his metamessage might be read, “the very idea! Harrumph!” So much for populism.

This is not, of course, to give full marks to Wikipedia. It is imperfect, as all things are, especially in their infancy (it is just five years old). It is, however, unexpectedly good for what it is; and, more important, it is just the sort of thing that contemporary students are apt to “access”. Now, if they will just learn that it is the start and not the end point of inquiry, we may have something with which to work. Meantime, if only as an antidote to the corporatist model of education, it is helpful. After all, the mainstream media—including venerable reference publications—are not devoid of difficulties with the “truth.” As Derkacz (2005, 15 December) says: “Every step of the way Wikipedia and its founder are taking steps to keep the process and the conversation open. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS News and the rest should take note.” Or, to use his concluding clarion call to communicators everywhere: “Again, the real issue for many critics, and believe me I'm not belittling this fear, is that "just anyone" can contribute. But is it really a stretch to believe that until we shed this "riff raff" view of the "general public" we'll never reach the full promise of Democracy? I say: sink your fortunes into the hoi polloi.”

Oh yes, and for those not faint of heart, there is also a Wiktionary, a thesaurus and (Horrors!) a Wikiversity.

Works Cited

Barrett, Ralph V. and Howard A. Doughty. (1977, August). “The Student as Rodent,” College Canada, 2(6).

CBC Radio. “The Current” (2005, 21 December). Retrieved 2005, 22 December). <http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2005/200512/20051221.html>.

Derkacz, Evan. (2005, 15 December). “The end of Wikipedia?” Retrieved 22 December, 2005). <http://www.alternet.org/bloggers/evan/29640/>.

Giles, Jim. (2005, 15 December). “Special Report: Internet encyclopedias go head to head”. Nature 438: 900-901.

Rae, B. (2005). Ontario: A leader in learning - Report and recommendations. Toronto: Publications Ontario.

Seigenthaler, John. (2005, November 29). “A false Wikipedia biography”. USA Today. Retrieved 5 December, 2005. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm>.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology