The case against Wikipedia in the classroom

Students should learn to build arguments, not write entries

All professors have to deal with what Noah Geisel has recently termed The Wikipedia Dilemma. With the online encyclopedia now the largest in the world, freely available, and ubiquitous on the web, the problem is evident. Should a prof forbid students from using Wikipedia or embrace it as a modern research tool without equal?

The case for Wikipedia is obvious: it’s easy to access, simple to use, and covers a far wider range of material than any other reference work. And though it may occassionally be subject to error, as all reference works are, its eminent editability keeps it relatively accurate and incredibly up to date. I once read an article about quicksand, and curious to know more about it, checked Wikipedia, only to find the article I had just read, an article that had been published that very day, cited among the sources.

The case against Wikipedia is, perhaps, less obvious. For one, Wikipedia entries are not particularly well written, nor could they be, cobbled together, as they are from millions of potential contributors. I don’t mean that the entries are full of grammatical errors, but rather that they lack the style of a masterful writer who has carefully worked out his accounts and arguments. They’re clumsy, inelegant. I want my students to read better writing than that.

More importantly, though, at the end of the day, Wikipedia is still an encyclopedia and, as such, it focuses on factual overviews. But as a university professor, I want my students to do more than read the well-established facts. I want them to know the fine details, and, more importantly, to grapple with the issues.

It is for this reason that I was so dismayed to learn about the Wikipedia Education Program, a program whereby university professors are encouraged to make writing a Wikipedia article part of their coursework. My colleague Scott Dobson-Mitchell has written a spirited defense of the project.

But I must disagree. To be sure, having students write a detailed entry on an under-represented topic would encourage students to do research, to write, and carefully cite their sources—all good things. But it would not encourage the most important skill that universities seek to develop among writers: the ability to take a stand on a controversial position and argue relentlessly for it. As an English professor I have dedicated a large part of my life to the principle that any society worth living in must be populated by a certain number of people who can formulate original ideas and have the courage to defend them.

Writing a Wikipedia article doesn’t teach you to do that. In fact, impartial neutrality is one of the Five Pillars of Wikipedia.Which is right and proper for an encyclopedia, but not for university students who should be learning much more than facts. I don’t want my students to be, as Wikipedia calls them, “knowledge generators.” I want them to be skeptics, to be iconoclasts, to be idea generators.

In other words, contrary to Wikipedia’s Jonathan Obar (and Dobson-Mitchell), writing a Wikipedia article does not convey “all the benefits from a traditional research assignment.” Indeed, inasmuch as it removes the central aim of any good paper—making a case— it conveys a great deal less.