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?
[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.