Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority and Liberal Education in the Digital Age, by Thomas Leitch

Research tools have been revolutionised by the internet but, asks John Gilbey, are they reliable?

January 29, 2015

During my first week at university, way back in the Kodachrome-memoried distance of 1976, I accepted the invitation of my new friend the subject librarian to take part in an information search in the university library. For three hours I happily scavenged the shelves, stacks and collections of ephemera on all six floors of the concrete edifice in search of the answers to various complicated questions from the realm of the environmental sciences.

As an exercise in familiarisation with the arcane practices of the Library of Congress classification system, it was a valuable if harrowing experience – but in retrospect it also illustrated just how difficult it was, in a pre-internet university, to wring useful, cogent information from even the best managed set of dead-tree resources.

Having read Thomas Leitch’s book I’m tempted, subject to finding the original set of questions, to try using Wikipedia to repeat the experience – just to see how the environments, and answers, compare. After more than a decade, Wikipedia now appears entrenched even in academia as the go-to source for “quick and dirty” information searches – but to what extent is it a truly authoritative source? How should we approach Wikipedia as an academic tool, when the model of recruitment, administration and oversight appears at first glance so different from the traditional tools of the higher education community?

In this deceptively slender volume, Leitch gathers a fascinating set of narratives around the nature of authority in the academic world, based strongly on the liberal education approach of critical analysis and debate. He looks perceptively at the New Model Army of innovative information folk represented by the Wikipedia philosophy of freedom, and discusses the issues raised in terms of a battle between the visibly entrenched opposing forces of “top-down” authority and the “bottom-up” building of consensus. It is a new world full of paradox, of unresolved questions and of the metaphoric scraping of metal on metal as the traditional architectures of academia struggle to avoid a slow-motion car wreck between the two cultures.

Various practical aspects of the Wikipedia model are examined in detail, not least the management of edit-wars – in which the protagonists of competing viewpoints on a topic play out their differences in an almost real-time drama that lies somewhere between formal duelling and a public brawl, pulling the sense of the article to and fro like a January sales trophy. Leitch expresses a real sense of delight in the novel opportunities presented by Web 2.0 technologies both as core tools for academic learning and as the basis for generating debate about how we should now define textual authority. The environment of debate has been made more liberal, more open, he argues, by sources such as Wikipedia.

Leitch’s writing style is engaging and conversational – suggestive of a series of seminars delivered in a sunlit, blossom-strewn New England college – but this should not be interpreted as a weakness. At the heart of this text is a critical (in several senses) debate about the very nature of authority and how it can, and must, evolve and be refined as both society and technology change around us. If anyone out there is listening, this book would make the basis of an intriguing set of Reith Lectures.

Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority and Liberal Education in the Digital Age

By Thomas Leitch
Johns Hopkins University Press, 176pp, £19.50
ISBN 9781421415352 and 5505 (e-book)
Published 21 November 2014

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