I never have understood the turmoil over Wikipedia. Sure, anyone can edit the resource. That’s how we ended up with Stephen Colbert’s influence on the elephant population last fall. Colbert’s discussion of wikiality in the video below gets at the real issues we need to discuss with students about reference texts like Wikipedia.
Colbert explains the concept of wikiality:
You see, any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true . . . . If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight's word: Wikiality. Now, folks, I'm no fan of reality, and I'm no fan of encyclopedias. I've said it before. Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn't, that's my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact.Now, I hope that none of us are spreading blatant mistruths about George Washington or the world’s elephant population. The real truth, however, is that people have always determined what is true and what is not. Reality has always been socially constructed, and there are millions of historical examples of someone managing to “convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.”
We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true. ... What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge. (The Colbert Report, episode 128, 07-31-2006)
Take an example close to home for many of us—the changes to the literature canon over the past fifty years. When I was a high school student, class readings focused on writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and Hemingway. Today’s high school student still reads those authors, but they are not the only focus. The voices of authors like Hurston, Cisneros, Wright, Soto, and Giovanni are now just as important. Teachers, readers, and critics have changed the reality of literature from a body of work all written by dead, white, educated men to one of a multicultural collection that includes people of different genders, sexualities, and classes.
Truth, it seems, is constantly edited by the user, and that’s the real issue to discuss with students. We cannot possibly accompany students though life, choosing the acceptable sources for them and denying them access to those we find less reliable. What we can do is teach them to evaluate the different truths in any resource they encounter, even Wikipedia, for the social and cultural biases that shape them.
Forbidding the use of Wikipedia teaches students that there is an outside gatekeeper responsible for truth. Showing them how to analyze Wikipedia articles for accuracy and reliability teaches them to make their own decisions about what is true and what is not—and that is skill that they can use once Wikipedia is as quaint and established as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.