THIS IS A COPY OF AN ARTICLE PUBLISHED RECENTLY IN AGORA MAGAZINE.
A History Teachers Association of Victoria training seminar I attended recently was a very enjoyable session with much debate about pedagogy, sources, referencing, and resources. We also spent a fair amount of time on issues of copyright, plagiarism, and social networking. The biggest debate that surfaced, not for the first time at an HTAV event, concerned the use of Wikipedia as a source for students.
Apparently some history teachers have been telling their students for years not to use Wikipedia, because they feel that it is too open to unprofessional comment. One person shared the tale of a colleague who warns students against Wikipedia, and then purposely goes onto the site to sabotage the information so that she can catch them out! (Presumably creating a new pseudonym each time: the editors do eventually catch up with saboteurs and ban them. Frankly I prefer good, honest, old fashioned Nazi-style book burning to such cynical vandalism, but I digress…)
Some of us were able to assure those present that the sheer quantity of review on the website means that, in the long term, the articles are often better than most of those available through a published Encyclopedia. Wikipedia’s own article on the Reliability of Wikipedia (accessed on 18/7/10) includes the following:
An early study conducted by IBM researchers conducted [sic] in 2003—two years following Wikipedia's establishment—found that "vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects" and concluded that Wikipedia had "surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities".
An investigation reported in the journal Nature in 2005 suggested that for scientific articles Wikipedia came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of "serious errors". These claims have been disputed by Encyclopædia Britannica.
I am particularly impressed that Wikipedia notes anything that is disputed or inadequately referenced. Wikipedia is more demanding of footnotes and references than most academic publishers, and certainly far more comprehensive than I have seen in most classroom textbooks. A brand new Wikipedia article may be the work of whichever crank has put it up, but bad articles do not survive long. It can take time for public opinion to settle a new article down to a more reasonable document, but it usually happens. This is one of the reasons that the editors of Wikipedia have banned many organizations, particularly religious cults, from commenting about themselves on site.
It is valuable therefore for students to realize that change happens, and even more valuable to track how it evolves. There is a History tab at the top of each Wikipedia page, which links to the number of changes to the article over time. This can be revealing on, say, Scientology, and downright terrifying on more immediately emotive issues… Try any article on ‘terrorism in X country’, and check what changes were made just after the most recent attack! A serious discussion with your students about sources can usefully include looking at one of these ‘History’ tabs.
Wikipedia can be an excellent tool for students, as long as they recognize its weaknesses. To demonstrate this, I suggest a nice little exercise to give students before they are permitted to use the resource on a regular basis. Ask them to find a controversial article, then click on the Discussion tab at the top of the page. There, they can examine the arguments behind changes that have been made. Any topic likely to provoke controversy is a useful start. If you can find one that relates directly to your students areas of studies, consider that a bonus.
Pointing out that there can be a debate about any particular topic is only the tip of the iceberg. To go a bit deeper, start looking at issues of ‘cultural’ censorship, such as politically correct modifications to terminology, or the assumption of automatic acceptability of things that are clearly still debatable. For example Wikipedia’s Global Warming Controversy article included under ‘Discussion’ (accessed on 6/3/10):
I noticed that the Related Controversies section dealing with the skeptics anti-science positions on the regulating of ozone depleteing [sic] chemicals and the risks of passive smoking were removed on March 29... Why was this allowed? It is quite clear that the skeptics simply did not want it known that they have resisted the scientific consensus on other notable issues as well. It was quite relevant because it lets people know just where these liars-4-hire are ideologically coming from, as spokespeople and spinmeisters for industry not for people.
(As most of the ‘climate skeptics’ I know of are mathematicians, geologists, and magnetic scientists, I don’t see how they can all be guilty of being funded by the tobacco lobby… Look at the debate on Wikipedia about how Wikipedia seems to be editing away references to ‘Climategate’ revelations!)
Political biases are equally evident. It may be worthwhile to point out to students that in many articles the cultural biases of the authors and editors require the words ‘conservative’ or ‘right wing’ in front of any opinion from right of centre (e.g. Keith Windschuttle), but reverse qualifiers are rare about opinion from left of centre! See Stolen Generations for instance. The consistency of such usage implies that ‘right thinking people’ instinctively understand the application of ‘conservative’ to imply ‘opinion that might be easily discounted’. A similarly opprobrious epithet was American practice in the McCarthyism era (then, one might have referred to the ‘communist’ Stuart Macintyre), and your more advanced students might like to consider such ironic parallels.
The very best cultural censorship examples are those that reveal the worst inherent weaknesses in the Wikipedia system: the ones that reveal the biases of the majority of its reviewers… Americans! My current favourite example for this is the article on the War of 1812.
The War of 1812 saw the United States opportunistically join the Napoleonic Wars against Britain in the hope of: A) getting ‘free trade’ with Napoleon’s blockaded Empire; B) invading Canada while Britain was busy; and C) undermining British support for the various Indian nations resisting American expansionism. Their main excuse for war was the ‘civil rights’ of ‘recent immigrants’: usually foreign nationals who had deserted their military service. In fact, the British were as likely to grab navy ‘deserters’ back from US flagged ships in 1812, as the US were to seize army deserters in Paris during World War Two. (Excuses are rarely the real war aims… see Weapons of Mass Destruction (accessed 18/7/10) as an excuse for taking down Saddam Hussein: “As Paul Wolfowitz explained: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”)
Britain had no real war aims against the United Sates in 1812 beyond how to get out of it without losing anything essential, such as the vital blockade of Napoleon’s Empire. This they easily achieved. At the end of the war the British had fought a number of half-hearted and inconclusive military engagements in North America; achieved some minor ‘victories’ (such as landing, burning Washington the ground, and leaving); and some ‘defeats’ (Americans celebrate one British raid was that was defeated, but which happened after the peace treaty was signed); and then were generally simply happy that the whole thing was over (allowing them to concentrate on Napoleon again). Total economic effect on Britain, small. Total political effect on Britain, vanishingly small. Most British people, then and now, hardly noticed the North American skirmishes against the background of the worldwide campaigns of the Napoleonic wars.
Canada had a war aim, to avoid conquest by the Americans. This they clearly achieved, and most Canadians have always believed that their side ‘won’, because America failed in a war aim that was clearly supported by the US President and many US Congressmen at the time. The political effect of the war in Canada was to effectively unite new British colonists, traditional French Catholics (who feared rampant US Protestantism), and displaced ‘Loyalist’ American refugees hounded out of the US after the previous war. Canadians can claim that ‘winning’ this war helped create their nation.
The US had many war objectives, but it is hard to find one that succeeded since British impressment of sailors had ended before the war started. The United States attempted to break Britain’s trade blockade of Napoleon’s Empire, and failed. It attempted mass attacks on British commerce, and failed. (Initial surprise attacks by American heavyweight ‘frigates’ were quickly been beaten back, and the surviving frigates were laid up in port. It is estimated that the US captured about 800 British ships, losing about 1,900 in the process.) It attempted to invade Canada several times, and failed. It finished the war with its trade destroyed, many of its ports and cities smoking ruins, its internal economy in collapse, and completely unable to pretend that it had achieved anything like its war aims. (It is claimed in Wikipedia that the great American ‘victory’ was Britain’s subsequent disinterest in the rights of the Indian nations to resist American conquest. This is the only ‘war aim’ that the British ‘lost’ – or at least pursued no harder than previously – as a result of the war. The British did not however, return the thousands of slaves they freed, many of whom fought for Britain and received land grants in Trinidad or Nova Scotia… Britain did later pay some compensation to some slave owners, if that helps?) So it is quite amusing that Wikipedia has consistently defined this conflict as “a draw”. Some American reviewers like to claim ‘both sides won the peace’, but Germany got to say that about World War Two without claiming that conflict was a ‘draw’.
Drawing students’ attention to Wikipedia’s very specific biases - in this case a very American patriotism - is only the first lesson they can draw from the discussion of this issue. See for instance the highly amusing subheading within the War of 1812 Discussion segment (Archive 13): “Impossibility of consensus because Wikipedia is not entirely American”. The, I hope unconscious, irony of this statement is best reflected by the commentator (jmdeur) who offers the apparently tongue in cheek statement… “The header for this section says it all - obviously Americans are the only people who have misconceptions about this conflict.” In fact this is an excellent lesson to learn in regard to all sources, as most published history books reflect their own biases.
(It is only fair to comment that American nationalistic jingoism in the War of 1812 article has been much improved since this archived debate. The recent version of the article (18/7/10) is considerably better than it was. Wikipedia still won’t concede that America lost, but it does note that Canadians have a right to believe that they might have won something... a bit… perhaps…)
In some ways Wikipedia is superior to most textbook sources in that the debate is, reasonably, transparent. I used to give my Cold War students out-takes from books by the pro-Communist ‘Progress Press’ for a nice contrast viewpoint to mainstream Western texts, now I could refer them to Wikipedia’s discussion of the viewpoints. Where the ‘Stolen Generation’ debate previously involved providing students with out-takes from Robert Manne or Stuart Macintyre and ‘the right wing’ Keith Windschuttle, now you may well be better off referring students to summaries of the debates in Wikipedia… provided they note the pejoratives and at least glance through the Discussion. Wikipedia’s History Wars articles (particularly the Black Armband Debate or Stolen Generations subheadings – accessed 18/7/10) have a better analysis of the different viewpoints than most of the (appallingly partisan) textbooks I have seen.
After students have digested the weaknesses of the Wikipedia system, they will be in a good position to make careful use of its strengths; that you can look at both the History and the Discussion of any topic is the greatest strength. It’s helpful for students to recognise that an article with no history or discussion is as much of a warning sign as one with too much! The real advantage of Wikipedia is that it can be its own best analytical tool. That the investigation will introduce students to the concepts of historiography via their preferred medium is just a lovely bonus.
References: Every reference in this article in italics is the title of a Wikipedia page. Every quote notes (in brackets) the date it was accessed, as suggested by the - quite respectable really - APA Style guide. Every Wikipedia page has its own references attached. How you want to handle that in essays is up to you!