- The Idea of an Encyclopedia
The “principal goal” of liberal education, as Thomas Leitch puts it, is students’ “mastery, integration, internalization, and responsible use” of knowledge disinterestedly sought (2). Because it lets students quickly find whatever knowledge they seek without mastering, integrating, or internalizing it, or developing the skills to use it responsibly, Wikipedia is routinely cited by academics as a threat to liberal education. The site seems to obviate the need for deep research, the evaluation of sources, and the careful weighing of multiple viewpoints—the very skills we teach in our classrooms.
Wikipedia’s metonymic relationship to forces antagonistic to liberal education was evident in September 2015 when Bruce Harreld, a candidate for president of the University of Iowa, quoted Wikipedia during a public forum (Woodhouse 2015; McLeod 2015). University faculty around the country raised the alarm. Cathy Davidson (2015), a professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center, called the comment “insulting.” Yet does Wikipedia deserve such ire? Leitch makes a convincing case that Wikipedia and liberal education are actually “codependent antagonists.” In Wikipedia U, he both uses “liberal education to frame the paradoxes of authority [End Page 569] Wikipedia raises” and reframes “the paradoxes of authority implicit in liberal education as it plays out in the undergraduate classroom” (5). Rather than echoing facile dismissals of Wikipedia, he explores its ubiquity and the potential advantages it offers higher education. As Leitch makes clear, the future of liberal education will require clarifying its value to a culture that has immediate access to so much information.
Although the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation solicits donations to pay for the site’s upkeep, Wikipedia relies on a community of volunteers to provide and monitor its content. Anyone can edit any Wikipedia page—either anonymously, in which case the edit is associated with an IP address, or through a registered account. Editors, or “Wikipedians,” are expected to abide by a set of guidelines. In theory all Wikipedians are equal, but in practice a layered bureaucracy offers some editors more power; indeed, on particularly controversial pages editing is limited to experienced users, and a set of communally elected administrators settles disputes when they arise. In addition, every article has an associated “Talk Page” where Wikipedians debate how to apply the policies in different cases, and a “History Page” that records and archives every edit. Behind each article, therefore, exist both a history of edits and, often, a record of how editorial decisions were made.
Leitch is not the first academic to write about the culture and history of Wikipedia. Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia (2009) and Joseph M. Reagle Jr.’s Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (2010) provide insight into the community of Wikipedians, while Dan O’Sullivan’s Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? (2010) links the digital encyclopedia to earlier crowd-sourced projects like the Oxford English Dictionary. Nor is Leitch the first to recognize links among Wikipedia, liberal education, and authority. A decade ago Roy Rosenzweig (2006: 139) explored the implications of Wikipedia for historians, noting that “those who create Wikipedia’s articles and debate their contents are involved in an astonishingly intense and widespread process of democratic self-education.” More recently, Ayelet Oz (2012) explored “the place that legitimacy and authority had in crafting the debate” about the blackout of Wikipedia in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2011.
Wikipedia U makes a valuable contribution to this scholarship by linking Wikipedia to current discussions about the liberal arts in the twenty-first century. Leitch’s work in adaptation theory (2003, 2007) offers fresh insight into Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia requires that all content be “verifiable” so that users can “check that the information comes from a reliable [End Page 570] source,” the content of every article “is determined by previously published information” (Wikipedia 2015b). In this sense, Wikipedia articles are “adaptations” of that previously published information. But the “no original research” policy disallows “any analysis or...