I'm getting lots of interesting responses to my Chronicle of Higher Education op ed piece on the reported "banning" of Wikipedia by Middlebury College. In one exchange, I came up with an idea that I'd love to toss out there. What if we said it was fine for a student to cite an article on Wikipedia so long as they did their own research on a topic that allowed them to contribute something valuable to Wikipedia? In other words, what if citation of a Wikipedia article were considered membership in an intellectual community that required contribution, not just use? That it required a kind of intellectual bartering of someone else's knowledge for your own? So, for example, if I happen to need to know about FDR for a history paper, I might begin with a Wikipedia entry. But then I have to contribute back to Wikipedia knowledge of something I know about in detail, let's say, the history of hip hop. I should submit content or correct content in an entry using the soundest principles of archival scholarship.
I'm not sure if that is a net good, but it could be a way of teaching what the sound principles of archival scholarship are and in a particularly meaningful and interactive way. If my scholarship stinks, someone else reading my entry on the history of hip hop will correct me. If I think their correction is wrong, we can argue out the point. Opinion v. history, reliable sources, evidence, logic: all that. The point about Wikipedia is that, in itself, it is a great tool for teaching what goes into knowledge production. I've heard that a conservative group wants to make its own version of Wikipedia for conservatives. Interesting. What does that mean, exactly? What will the standards for accuracy be on such a source? What community standards will evolve there? Evolve. Interesting slip. Will there even be an entry on "evolution" or "Darwin" in the conservative Wikipedia?
The sloppy argument for intellectual relativism that has entered into some students' practices (i.e. you have your opinion, I have mine, it's all the same thing . . .) is, we are being told, a product of this generation's upbringing as part of the self-esteem movement. I'm okay, you're okay (actually, you're okay, I'm better). I don't really buy that as I am suspicious of any generalizations based on generations (especially on "younger generations"). But even if it does come up in the classroom, Wikipedia is a great way to dispel the notion that all knowledge is equally valid or that knowledge is free. From the Discussion sections of Wikipedia, one quickly learns that knowledge is contested, and the only way to succeed in the contest is by mustering evidence and authority. Those are not easy, simple, or transparent terms---but they are certainly worth thinking about. Again, isn't this exactly what education is for?