Know It Alls

Ashley Thorne

Know-it-all is an epithet applied to any person who exhibits the belief that he or she possesses a superior intellect and wealth of knowledge, and shows a determination to demonstrate his perceived superiority at every opportunity.” – Wikipedia

At the core of higher education is the humility of recognizing: we don’t know everything. We have, therefore, no choice but to rely on the intellectual authority of others. In so doing, we seek (and occasionally find) the truth.

Diderot and the philosophes, acknowledging the demand for accessible information, compiled the first encyclopedia. Since then, intellectuals have counted it a worthy academic project to systematize knowledge by encapsulating a broad range of facts into a single source.

Among the leading authorities are Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book, whose massive volumes take up multiple bookshelves. Pouring forth knowledge to those who search for it, they belong to the Reference section of the public library and are too precious to be borrowed thence. With the rise of the internet, however, even these venerable encyclopedias went online and released their pages to those who shun the public library and don’t want to invest in bulky sets of books. Of course, a subscription is required, and of course, both online and printed versions are authored and edited by experts. We wouldn’t expect anything less.

Or would we? For there is another encyclopedia giant dominating the web: Wikipedia. Describing its name as “a portmanteau of the words wiki (a type of collaborative website) and encyclopedia," Wikipedia represents something different from World Book online. Part of that is the democratizing of academic authority: expertise is no longer limited to those with credentials. Rather, Wikipedia flings open the gates of authority to all humanity, but supposedly with a self-correcting mechanism that keeps its articles accurate. Anyone can write and edit any Wikipedia entry – no qualifications necessary.

This huge-scale, ongoing project is one of those that make us think of the term “global community.” Contributors write in over 250 languages and anyone can access the site from anywhere in the world. Wikipedia’s logo, in fact, is a spherical puzzle with pieces yet unplaced. Each piece in the sphere contains a letter from across the alphabet spectrum, seeming to signify a globe made up of words from all over the world. Surely Wikipedia is an ideal of equal opportunity and the perfect forum for people to “learn from one another.”

And surely higher education would welcome this collaboration with that humility that we can’t know everything and must rely on others. Yet Wikipedia meets strong resistance from faculty and some students. Professors in particular denounce it as a research tool (my own professors did not allow me or my fellow students to use Wikipedia for research), and their main argument is that it is unreliable. But could it be that their disdain really stems from an offended sense of justice, that Wikipedia is too easy? 

When Middlebury College's history department banned students from using Wikipedia as a cited source, the college hosted a forum in which professors presented views from each side of the debate. Amy Morsman, assistant professor of history at Middlebury, lamented the democratized encyclopedia: "Open-source software is like free trade, and the invisible hand of the market has the mouse now."

Wikipedia wouldn’t be the first such breach in the ivory tower.  Universities in the 16th century survived the translation into the vernacular of Greek and Latin works. At the beginning of the 20th century, Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy put well-stocked public libraries in thousands of towns across the country, and the public appetite for higher education only grew.  Nor did higher education collapse in mid-century when mass-market editions such as Modern Library and Penguin Classics made the liberal arts more liberally available.  More recently, internet search engines and full-text data bases have given the public nearly effortless access to an abundance of scholarly books and translations, that until now only those with advanced knowledge of a subject and proximity to a research library could have begun to match.  From time to time, technological innovations come along and upset the academy—or at least the pedants who protest that the gates of knowledge should not open quite so wide.

Whether because teachers fear that Wikipedia-research scants deeper and more wide-ranging inquiry, or whether ivory-kneed fact-peckers sound alarm at the encroachment of the information superhighway into the Great Piney Woods of academe, the resistance to Wikipedia is undeniable.   Since its inception in 2001, Wikipedia’s worth has been debated with fervor on both sides.  Until recently, it was totally banned in China.

We at the National Association of Scholars face a conflict of values here.  For although we take traditional stands in favor of reasoned inquiry and authoritative evidence, we also support free institutions, of which Wikipedia is one. In pursuing the truth, we also reflect on the “all-are-welcome” notion that invites everyone to become a contributor. Clearly some kind of gate-keeping is needed.  Not everyone is truly a teacher, and mischief comes from relaxing the guard.  We have taken note of the attempt of residence life officials on some college campuses attempting to usurp faculty control of parts of the curriculum.  (See Inside the ACPA Conference).   The uneducated sometimes take unearned pride in claiming, “I am as qualified as the professors are.”   Ideally, the university is an institution that upholds rigorous standards of intellectual authority yet remains open to all who would willingly abide by and compete within those standards.  Is Wikipedia an embodiment of that spirit or a conflation of it?

In light of these reflections, we’d like to point to and invite some serious debate on Wikipedia in relation to higher education. We realize that this discussion has been taking place long before now, but we’d like to bring it to our table for consideration specific to NAS. 

If you would like to join this discussion, please send your remarks to [email protected]. We will review submissions for posting on our website.

P.S. NAS has an entry on Wikipedia.


May 23, 2008: Mark Bauerlein, The Wikipedia Style

UPDATE - Publisher Compares Wikipedia to Oxford English Dictionary

About Wikipedia

Inside Higher Education: Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia

Middlebury Bans Wikipedia as a Cited Source

Inside Higher Education: A Stand Against Wikipedia

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