Citizendium is worth watching.

I have always been a fan of Wikipedia, and have been intrigued by the press stories comparing Wikipedia with the Encyclopedia Brittanica in terms of coverage and accuracy. But according to an AP story I saw in the Washington Times, Wikipedia is facing new competition from a new venture called Citizendium, and I think there is good reason to cheer this development.

Citizendium is being founded, oddly enough, by one of Wikipedia’s co-founders, Larry Sanger. To explain Sanger’s decision, the AP/Washington Times story focused largely on the fact that Wikipedia’s contributors can remain anonymous, and can therefore work mischief with impunity. This, in turn, discourages knowledgeable experts from contributing helpful information because they “don’t want to wade in with contributions that can be overwritten within minutes by anyone.” But in a longish September 2006 essay, Mr. Sanger identifies problems with the Wikipedia model that seem to me to go somewhat deeper:

  • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently. Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
  • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not–in other words, the troll problem.
  • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
  • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics. Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism. Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there’s something wrong with that.

“The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently.” Wow, that’s not just Wikipedia, is it? I’m the last person to say that anonymity is no big deal; on the contrary, I think it is the root cause of some very great evils, both on the Internet and in more traditional print media. But aren’t we also dealing here with fundamental tensions between individuality and consensus? And between egalitarianism and authority?

We see the same tensions in education. The Anchoress today posts a disquieting second-hand account of the grading of a regents exam in some undisclosed state:

[A] teacher pal of mine shared this story with me. While grading a regents exam for Global History she came across one student essay that had her both amused and horrified. “Because essays are subjective, we’re not supposed to consider content in the grading,” she said, “and that’s really correct because you don’t want some teacher grading down an essay simply because she disagrees with, for instance, the religious or political outlook of the student…but this essay! The student began with a standard opening paragraph: ‘throughout global history, da-dah-da-dah-yadda-yadda,’ and she ended with a proper concluding paragraph, ‘in consideration blah, blah, throughout global history, blah, blah…’ but the middle paragraph began: ‘the *** are a filthy, disgusting people and I don’t understand why we had to learn about them…’

The student’s middle was basically a run-down of all the ethnic and religious groups on whom she felt her attention wasted while studying Global History, but with appropriate words here and there tossed in, “indigenous,” “culturally advanced” etc.

“I had no choice,” my friend said, “the grading standards were clear. She got points for having the opening and concluding paragraph and for using “key words” that expressed understanding of certain ideas. Because I had to give her those points, she got a passing grade, and in the theory of political correctness that’s pretty much as it should be, because her ‘content’ should not be subject to my ‘judgment,’ as long as she’s demonstrating applied knowledge of form and concepts…but this really isn’t what 11 years of education is supposed to boil down to, is it?”

The Anchoress offers this as an example of how form is elevated over substance when one “teaches to the test”:

This idea of conceptual education, which is teaching kids how to take tests well, doesn’t allow their active thoughts to land on anything taut enough for a re-bound. Instead their thoughts land on something soft and mushy…and then they stay there.

But how different would the result be if this occurred outside the environment of a standardized test? Isn’t it really the development and communication of anything like a scholarly consensus that is in jeopardy?

Scholarly consensus, like any other, can of course be wrong; it may be that the student author above was substantially correct in believing that her time had been wasted in the study of the *** culture, even if as a matter of dogma one believes that no real study is ever a complete waste of time. But the very idea that an individual may be right where a consensus of the community is wrong is a very “substantive” idea; it is not just a game of catch phrases. (I’m reminded of a college psychology professor who used to harrumph, “Of course there’s a cultural bias in mental testing. It’s Hellenic. If we were Persian, we’d weigh you instead.”) It’s hard to see how the grading system above communicates that idea very well.

There are important elements of American political thought that are decidedly hostile not just to particular orthodoxies, but to Orthodoxy itself. But if our teachers no longer feel that they are engaged in the regeneration of a particular tradition — passing on the accumulated learning of a particular community in particular places and times — then the pendulum has swung too far. Citizendium seems to be aiming for a community that is open to all viewpoints without becoming constitutionally incapable of rejecting any. We could certainly use more successful models of that sort.

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3 Responses to “Citizendium is worth watching.”

  1. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Mark, this posting raises two related, although slightly distinguishable points. The first is whether an education that primarily aims to prepare students to display certain “skills” in a controlled environment is really any education, as the term has been traditionally understood, at all. The second, and much larger point, is whether the primary goal of public education should be to impart a considered way of making value judgements such that one can move from “is” statements (factual and descriptive) to “ought” statements (moral imperatives that reveal the nature of a society and the health of a culture). The two points are related in that adopting a standardized skills model of education may, in fact, preclude the posibility of ever realizing the goal of a truly moral education. That of course presumes that a moral education is (a) desirable, (b) possible in theory, ie it is reasonable to adopt one tradition of moral education over another and (c) possible in fact, ie, although it would be good if we could agree on one tradition of moral education in a diverse and fluid modern society, such agreement is factually impossible.

    These are all big, big questions that have been debated at least since Plato.

    What troubles me about the posting is the notion that the skills based model precludes the advancement of moral education, although I expect that notion to be true. There has been much backlash against No Child Left Behind and other attempts by government at all levels to enforce a base line standard of educational skills. One of the principle arguments against the skills based approach is the one raised in this posting. However, let’s remeber how we got to No Child Left Behind in the first place. Public education in the United States is a complete mess. The issue is not whether children are receiving a moral education but whether many of them, especially minority children from underprivileged backgrounds, are learning anything at all. The education establishment, hiding behind arguments like Mark’s, but I fear in many cases simply running from accountability, is arguing that the standardized test model has failed, leaves too little room for experimentation and is overly authoritarian. Therefore, they advocate abandoning the objective, standardized model for….what, exactly? Surely not the considered moral, traditional approach to classical education favored by Mark.

    The young, misguided student in Mark’s posting clearly lacked the ability to move from her “is” statements to an “ought” statement in a manner that well educated people could accept. However, apparently, based on her grade, she nailed the “is” statements. That, at least, is something.

    As Tom Friedman is fond of saying, “Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.”

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Dave, it’s interesting that you bring up No Child Left Behind, an issue I had not meant to raise. I take that as a good indication that I wrote an undisciplined post about too many things at once. The point on which I meant to focus was that even a liberal tradition has some boundaries and excludes some viewpoints, and it is no easy thing to find the right balance between the one and the many. Education is necessarily central to the elaboration of our traditions (not just intellectually but also politically and culturally), so the grading of tests and the compilation of reference texts make for interesting case studies.

    Perhaps what I find interesting here is that it seems so obvious that we must operate between the poles rather than at one or the other. None but the madman would reject all tradition, and within any single tradition a fair degree of exclusion is implied. At the same time, the tradition we are in happens to be one that is wary of exclusion. Thus, being conservative means honoring our tradition, but our tradition is for the most part liberal. The trick, it seems to me, is not to resolve the tension, but to accept it and acknowledge it as an unavoidable part of living together in community. Citizendium will attempt to do it in part by developing principles of discourse and in part by controlling membership in the community, two things our society isn’t doing very well these days. It will be interesting to see how that goes.

    You lost me a bit on the move from is to ought, but your post does make me reconsider the suggestion in my original post that standardization is only an incidental part of the problem where education is concerned. As you point out, standardized testing aims low compared to some alternatives, but it aims to prevent some outcomes that would be even worse. A more subjective assessment, based on a genuine relationship between teacher and pupil, would permit the teacher to demand more from each student, perhaps focusing on effort and engagement with the material rather than on mastery of facts and figures. One hopes that is happening on the 175 or so other days of school on which no standardized testing occurs.

    This all reminds me, belatedly, of an interesting thread about law school grading on the Volokh Conspiracy. Professor Orin Kerr posted five imaginary answers to an imaginary exam question and tried to explain why answer five was better than answer four and so on. I was particularly interested to see that many commenters (including law professors, law students, and practicing lawyers) disagreed with Professor Kerr not just about what made one answer better than another but about which answer was best. One engineer waded through the comments and condensed them into a five-point “generic rubric” for taking a law-school exam, and it was very good even though it still left a great deal of the substance untouched. Perhaps that engineer should be grading regents exams in Global History somewhere.

  3. Mark Grannis Says:

    PS — Those who want to follow the specifically educational aspect of this topic may want to read Betsy Newmark’s post about the essay portion of the SAT, which is the post that inspired the Anchoress to write the post to which I originally linked. Betsy was in turn commenting on a recent paper by an MIT professor who coached an 18-year-old to write a factually incorrect, philosophically incoherent, and otherwise generally horrifying essay which nonetheless received a score of 5 out of 6 on the SAT.


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