A couple of months ago the Middlebury College history department banned students from citing Wikipedia in essays and exams. In particular the faculty statement said:
Whereas Wikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes, extremely useful, it nonetheless suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation. Students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide, and they cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors.
However their reasoning is fatally flawed, and speaks toward poor education and worse pedagogy.
I have never been to Middlebury College, nor am I familiar with their general rules for sources. However the nature of this statement suggests a very prejudiced view that favors traditional printed sources. Worse, it suggests that students are taught to trust some sources inherently and distrust others.
I agree with part of the statement, especially the bit about ” students are responsible for the accuracy of information they provide.” That’s sensible, and it is a principle I follow when evaluating my own student’s papers. If such a paper includes information I know to be false, the student is marked down for it, even if they can cite a reference for their claim. There is a lot of bad information out there, on the Web and off, and students need to learn to judge its reliability and confirm its accuracy. I will even warn a student off of a topic where I know they’re likely to encounter a lot of inaccurate and bad information, especially if I don’t think they yet have the experience or background to properly evaluate the sources.
It is the last sentence that really bothers me; the one that says “students cannot point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors.” Well, yes, but why would you even state this? Does the Middlebury History Faculty mean to say that it is OK for a paper or exam to contain errors if the Enyclopedia Britannica can be cited to back up the errors? Why does the Wikipedia get called out for special treatment here? Why not treat all sources equally?
History texts are full of inaccurate and misleading information. College history professors know this. James W. Loewen explained in Lies My Teacher Told Me:
College teachers in most disciplines are happy when their students have had significant exposure to the subject before college. Not teachers in history. History teachers in college routinely put down high school history courses. A colleague of mine calls his survey of American history “Iconoclasm I and II,” because he sees his job as disabusing his charges of what they learned in high school. In no other field does this happen. Mathematics professors, for instance, know that non-Euclidean geometry is rarely taught in high school, but they don’t assume that Euclidean geometry was mistaught. Professors of English literature don’t presume that Romeo and Juliet was misunderstood in high school. Indeed, history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become.
Primary sources are even more challenging than high school history textbooks. A historian can no more trust the report of a Civil War soldier than a journalist can trust the word of one fighting today in Iraq. Claims need to be confirmed, backed up by multiple sources, compared against things that are known to be true and things known to be false, and more. You cannot accept what you read blindly.
A proper education in history (and most other subjects) will help students learn to evaluate the reliability of various sources. They will learn how to challenge them and read between the lines. They will learn not to take any claim, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, at face value; but to consider the interests of the people who made the claim. This is what a proper education does.
The problem with Middlebury’s policy is that it says some sources are trustworthy and others aren’t. It does this by fiat, and apparently fiat based on the irrelevant criterion of whether a source is published with ink or electrons. The faculty also appear to be very concerned about Wikipedia’s “unique manner of compilation” that in fact seems to make Wikipedia far more reliable than many competing sources. On the subjects in which I am able to competently judge, Wikipedia comes out very well.
What Middlebury should be teaching its students is that no sources are reliable. Every source is unreliable to a greater or lesser degree. Every source should be checked and compared against other sources, against your own knowledge, and against common sense before one decides how much trust to give it. No source should be accepted or rejected blindly. Sadly the Middlebury history faculty seem to believe that lesson is too complicated for their students who must be protected from the brutal realities of doing real historical research.