“Definitions will greet us as liberators”

Wikiality. A few months ago Stephen Colbert invented this word while praising Wikipedia for having a longer listing for “truthiness“ than it did for Lutherans. I have to echo his enthusiasm. Wikipedia serves a wonderful purpose in that it spares me the embarrassment of admitting when I don’t know something. Rather than having to ask someone and get a raised eyebrow in response, I just type in a few words and the wonderful world of Wiki enlightens me.

What was up with that huge red moon that appeared for a night last month? It’s called a hunter’s moon! In the event of nuclear war, will cockroaches really inherit the earth? Thankfully, no. They’re no more resistant to radiation than a fruit fly. There’s even an entry for “why.” Next time your 3-year-old asks that question, just refer them to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia represents the ability of the internet to democratize knowledge. You don’t need to sit in a class on French history to learn that there was a short-lived French king known as John the Posthumous, you only need to click the random article button. Are you sitting on a precious knowledge nugget about poor dead John? Hit “edit this page” and make society a better place. Want to claim credit for inventing the French fry? Make your voice heard, my Belgian friend! Disagree with the definition of “tyrant?” Rally enough of your internet friends and have the definition ousted! (Although I must warn you, the editing feature on the George W. Bush entry has been disabled).

Along the same vein of bringing knowledge to the masses is the Open Courseware program started by MIT and available through several universities now. Through this initiative, thousands of courses from top schools are available to anyone who has access to the internet. Professors post streaming lectures, notes, homework assignments — virtually everything but the actual classroom atmosphere itself is available online. The goal is to open education to everyone and create a global learning community

I’ll be interested to see how popular and accessed this project becomes. I’m all for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, as you can tell by my Wikipedia queries. But I have to wonder, who benefits from this? I’ve been pondering this question since I heard ND was adding courses to OCW. Obviously this is a wonderful and noble venture, as everyone with access to the internet can have access to many of the resources of a top rate education whether they can pay or not. Globally, this has very positive implications. But here in America, we live in a society that has become so driven by achievement, why even bother?

I have heard friends lament the downward spiral of the liberal arts education. It seems many universities, ND included, have started focusing so much on cranking out business and pre-professional students that they’ve started to look like vocational schools, leaving the traditional liberal arts in the dust. Students enter college wondering what is going to get them a good job and secure paycheck. I myself have complained that though I loved studying political science, I graduated with basically no marketable skills. In fact, shortly after graduation a friend asked, “So what are you going to do now, open a political science store?”

You can’t earn a degree from OCW, there is no line to add to your CV, it’s not going to pay any bills or put food on the table. So is it even relevant in the results-oriented culture that we live in?


  1. Of course it’s relevant. Information wants to be free, if you know what I mean. I know plenty of people (my father included) that do not have degrees, but are very knowledgable due to self studying.

    I have a Bachelors Degree in IT from the UOPHX, and I honestly don’t think I learned a lot of marketable skills there. A peice of paper is all I got. I did however, download a bunch of online books for classes that I didn’t take, just in case I became interested in that subject in the future.

    I think college is an overrated scam to get your money these days. Businesses and students (have to?)buy into it.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    For a long time I didn’t know what a wiki was, and so I would ignore it when I got google hits to the Wikipedia. But I finally figured it out. The Wikipedia has generally been very good, and I often have occasion to refer to it.

  3. Jonathan Green says:

    Wikipedia can be useful for a lot of things. Like any other encyclopedia, though, don’t mistake its entries for truth, the current scholarly consensus, or something other than the ravings of a single author. Sometimes the entries are all three of these, but you’d already have to be an expert on the topic to know the difference. A fun assignment I’ve given students before is to ask them to spot the errors in a Wikipedia article.

    As for OCW, I suspect a book is a more efficient format for transmitting knowledge in most instances–without feedback from an instructor, most course materials won’t get you much. But OCW seems like a useful way for teachers to compare syllabuses.

  4. I love Wikipedia! I am content to read and while away my time in front of all manner of reference books. I spent 5 years as an undergrad and 4 more as a grad student, many semesters with an overloaded course load. My transcripts are packed with classes that have titles that make people say, “There’s actually a class in that?” Knowledge for knowledge sake is becoming a less desirable thing, I guess, but I think there are enough people out there who are keeping the liberal arts alive and well. If there weren’t, Wikipedia wouldn’t be as vast and amazing as it is.

  5. Well, I am now addicted to Open Courseware. I think that is about the coolest thing ever.

  6. Thanks for the info on Open Courseware.

    I was recently teaching a problem based learning section on pharmacology to a group of medical students. When they needed to look up the action of a drug, they quickly turned to Wikipedia. The Physician’s Desk Reference was sitting right there on the table, but they preferred Wikipedia—with all its speed, ease, and mistakes. (I can only imagine their defense in a malpractice suit….)

  7. kristine N says:

    check out the following article in nature on the relative accurace of wikipedi vs. encyclopedia brittanica:

  8. not just english says:

    Wikipedia is a wonderful invention, but it requires mass participation. I encourage all of you out there who speak other languages to check the articles on the church and mormonism in those languages. I stumbled across the Hungarian (my mission language) wikipedia a few months ago, and the article on the church was a rambling, mostly anti-mormon mess. None of it was redeemable (and I did do my best to be unbiased); I had to rewrite the entire thing. So do those other countries a favor and give them correct information! (And while you’re at it, make sure you check all the references to mormons, not just the main articles–you’ll find obscure interjections like “The Mormons not only accept polygamy, but encourage it…”)

  9. I’m just too white and nerdy
    How’d I get so white and nerdy

    I’ve been browsin’, inspectin’
    X-Men comics, you know I collect ‘em
    The pens in my pocket, I must protect ‘em
    My ergonomic keyboard never leaves me bored
    Shopping online for deals on some writable media
    I edit Wikipedia
    I memorized Holy Grail really well
    I can recite it right now and have you ROTFLOL

  10. They even have a project devoted to the Latter Day Saint Movement, the aptly named Wikiproject Latter Day Saint movement

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    FAIR, the internet-based apologetics organization with which I am affiliated, has a fledgling Wiki, which you may examine here.