Wikipedia > Encyclopedias

Yesterday important swaths of the Internet were blacked out to protest SOPA, PIPA, and the RWA. We would have blacked out our site as well but… uh… we sort of didn’t get around to it. One site that did, however, was Wikipedia. This lead to a certain amount of chortling and self-staisfied rubbing of hands from conservative academics as they enjoyed imagining what life is like for undergraduates without Wikipedia.

I’ve been rethinking the now-ancient war between Wikipedia and its paper forebearers myself, since I’ve just been asked to write my first encyclopedia article — a strange sensation as a wikipedia contributor! Given the recent outbursts of schadenfreude, I think its time to remember once again why Wikipedia is so utterly superior to physical encyclopedias.

To prepare for writing my encyclopedia entry I went to the library to see what actual encyclopedias look like. I must say I was pleasantly surprised. As a student I spurned encyclopedias as ‘secondary sources’ and plowed through texts. As a result, I have an invaluable knowledge that can’t be duplicated by reading secondary sources, and a keen awareness of how exhausting not using secondary sources is! Reading the high-quality, professionally edited entries in my library’s encyclopedias was an eye-opener and a guilty pleasure — you could learn so much with so little effort! And you don’t have to work as hard untangling the entries the way you do with Wikipedia!

But this is exactly the problem with closed, for-profit encyclopedias: they require no work. In fact, they require just the opposite: submission to authority. The writing guidelines for my encyclopedia entry insist that there be no quotations or citations — just a short list of additional readings. Encyclopedias give us no reason to believe their claims are true except the arbitrary authority of those who write them. They are the ultimate triumph of the authoritarian impulse in academics.

Compare this to Wikipedia, which has gotten so persnickety about insisting on citations and references that much of the charm of its early days has gone. Every wikipedia entry is an argument between its composers, spilling out of the discussion page and into the entry. Accuracy and verifiablity are there on the page to see. In other words, Wikipedia is the ultimate realization of academic ideals of argumentation, presentation of evidence, probing claims to logical coherence, and the deliberative use of reason. There is no better place for people to cut their teeth on the life of the mind, or to begin to learn the fundamental skill of close and critical reading of a text.

It is this refusal of arbitrary authority that really scares encyclopedia types, not worries about accuracy. Wikipedia is a place where you must learn to think for yourself, encyclopedias are places where you are told what to believe.

Of course, there is a lot to like about the arbitrary exercise of authority if you have faith in the authority in question: the gullible are not duped, the conspiracy theorists are silenced, and the trains run on time. The down side of intellectual debate is the possibility of intellectual chaos — and there’s certainly a lot of that on Wikipedia! If you are pessimistic about the capacities of your students to know and learn then feeding them the party line is, to you at least, the best way to protect them.

But we as educators can and must believe that our students — and everyone else! — is capable of more than this. Our fundamental principles and highest aspirations lead us ineluctably to the conclusion that attaining intellectual maturity requires immersion in the rough waters of public debate, which is exactly what Wikipedia is. The real danger of Wikipedia is its use by people made gullible by a system which promises them that someone, somewhere knows The Truth, exactly the belief that college teachers try to educate their students out of rather than into. We’d have less uncritical reading of Wikipedia if there were less people trained to be uncritical readers.

Oh and did I mention the massively larger coverage, the instant updating, the self correction, and the ease of consultation that Wikipedia possess? Or the sheer charm of Wikipedia: when was the last time you read an encyclopedia entry on death by elephantCardassia, or chicken sexing?

Wikipedia is flawed, human, complex, and ultimately deeply worthwhile. It is real life, not a child-proof playroom. What sort of educators are we if we believe the latter is better for our students than the former?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

7 thoughts on “Wikipedia > Encyclopedias

  1. Those who see their students as infants in need of orientation before they start to tear the frameworks we teach them apart?

  2. @Rex

    You and me both. On reflection I was groping for something that would acknowledge the need for the grownups to provide a structure against which the children can rebel, not assuming that young bundles of chaos will magically know from the start what they can or want to do.

    The tricky issue is not prescription vs non-prescription but when and how to manage the transition. One of the most memorable moments in my own education occurred when, having just arrived at Cornell, I asked Jack Roberts what I should take my first semester. “John,” he said, “the whole point of becoming a graduate student is to stop being a student.” It was, in short, time for me to stop worrying about what teachers told me to do and start thinking instead of what would make me an interesting colleague.

  3. Um… not sure I agree with your characterization of the authority of print encyclopedias as “arbitrary.” The whole network of professional knowledge production, publication, and peer review is admittedly imperfect and sometimes masks its authority in problematic ways, but it’s hardly arbitrary. I’ve found more arbitrariness among Wikipedians, who are sometimes given to contesting and deleting things based on internal norms rather than solid content knowledge.

    That said, I’ve authored and edited Wikipedia entries and use it frequently–and in terms of teaching students how to use and assess sources, I work toward a view of *all* authoritative statements, on the screen and on the page, as “flawed, human, [and] complex,” which I think is a notion that even undergraduates still in need of basic orientation are able to grasp.

  4. I’m late responding to this thread but I did just want to make a few points. I’m not opposed to creating and using encyclopedic sources. I think they can be useful for certain people, especially high school students. But college students need to develop different skills, skills which involve reading works for bias and critically. So I hope its clear that I’m not totally and irreconcilably opposed to paper encyclopedias.

    I say that paper encyclopedias are arbitrary because they offer no proof, no arguments, and no evidence that what they say are true. They rely entirely on institutional authority, not logic, reason, and evidence. We might say — optimistically! — that professors who write encyclopedia articles ought to be trusted because the academy has vetted them. But to the reader who wasn’t on the tenure committee, read their scholarly output etc, this is small comfort.

  5. I say that paper encyclopedias are arbitrary because they offer no proof, no arguments, and no evidence that what they say are true. They rely entirely on institutional authority, not logic, reason, and evidence.

    There are plenty of counterexamples (here is one) that put the lie to your assertion, as you already well know (or at least should). I understand that bombastic oversimplification is the coin of the realm in cyberspace, but implying that encyclopedia articles are never written at an above Twelfth Grade reading level is awfully disrespectful to an awful lots of fine encyclopedia articles and their authors.

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