May 20, 2010

Wikipedia founder fears the decline of liberal education

How do you think the founder of Wikipedia feels about on-line collaborative learning, and the Internet as a replacement for a traditional college education? You might be surprised to learn that he is sceptical, if not pessimistic.

Larry Sanger is best known as co-founder of Wikipedia, and has most recently started an innovative directory of educational videos: WatchKnow.org. He is also interested in educational philosophy and policy. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy, with a dissertation about the theory of knowledge, from Ohio State in 2000. In a recent article in EDUCAUSE Review he addressed the topic of "Individual knowledge in the Internet Age." Here are some highlights:

In the last several years, many observers of education and learning have been stunned by the abundance of information online, the ever-faster findability of answers, and the productivity of online "crowds," which have created information resources like Wikipedia and YouTube. The enormous scope of these developments has surprised me too, despite the fact that they are more or less what many of us had hoped for and deliberately tried to bring into being. These sudden, revolutionary developments demand analysis: How is this latest information explosion changing the way we live? Is the relationship between society and individual changing? More to the point for this article, how is the Internet revolution changing education?

I will analyze three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet. First is the idea that the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary. Second is the celebration of the virtues of collaborative learning as superior to outmoded individual learning. And third is the insistence that lengthy, complex books, which constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual, are inferior to knowledge co-constructed by members of a group.

Though seemingly disparate, these three strands of thought are interrelated. Each tends to substitute the Internet — both a resource and an innovative way to organize people — for individual learning and knowledge. I have devoted my Internet career to creating educational tools, so I am sympathetic to the use of the Internet for education. But I believe that it is a profound mistake to think that the tools of the Internet can replace the effortful, careful development of the individual mind — the sort of development that is fostered by a solid liberal arts education.

  • Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having a knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.
  • ...the point of a good education is not merely to amass a lot of facts. The point is to develop judgment or understanding of questions that require a nuanced grasp of the various facts and to thereby develop the ability to think about and use those facts. If you do not have copious essential facts at the ready, then you will not be able to make wise judgments that depend on your understanding of those facts, regardless of how fast you can look them up.
  • To possess a substantial understanding of a field requires not just memorizing the facts and figures that are used by everyone in the field but also practicing, using, and internalizing those basics. ... surely the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it.
  • There is no reason to think that repurposing social media for education will magically make students more inspired and engaged. What inspires and engages some people about social media is the passion for their individual, personal interests, as well as the desire to stay in touch with friends. Remove those crucial elements, and you merely have some neat new software tools that make communication faster.
  • The Internet in general is the greatest educational tool that has been devised since, perhaps, the invention of the printing press. But the question...is whether the mere existence of such learning resources somehow...makes it possible for social learning to replace or displace more traditional individual learning.
  • To be well educated, to be able to pass along the liberal and rational values that undergird our civilization, we must as a culture retain our ability to comprehend long, difficult texts written by individuals. Indeed, the single best method of getting a basic education is to read increasingly difficult and important books...there are some people who are very well trained for various trades without reading many books. But when it comes to getting a solid intellectual grounding — a foundational, liberal education — nothing is less dispensable than getting acquainted with many books created by the "complex, dense" minds of deep-thinking individuals.
  • The key assumption underlying my view is that liberal education and the Western enlightenment ideals that it inculcates not only are valuable but are essential to our future.
  • Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation, however much they can be assisted by (social learning) groups, are ultimately individual skills that must, in the main, be practiced by individual minds capable of working independently.

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our "digital tribe," ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.
Read the full article, and feedback here.

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