Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wikipedia, education and engaging the individual

One of the perils of an open society, especially the open education and open publishing society of today's web, is the premium it places on the reader to be their own editor. Intellectuals often fear for the demise of the monopoly position they hold over both education and media, and some find it galling that an on-line encyclopedia even exists, let alone that it is flourishing. This article discusses some of the perceived problems.

For me, much of these fears are over-stated. Mistakes and ideology embedded within Wikipedia are rapidly exposed by an Internet search of links, commentaries and blogs. The reader self-selects and self-edits. We agree with those who offer perspectives that fit our world-view and we modify our world view, our opinions and our ideology in response to what we read -- each person reads up to the point where that level of comfort exists for them. Trust in the individual. A concept most elites struggle with.

This week I was invited to participate in the student-run World Affairs Conference held at Toronto's Upper Canada College. This year's conference was the 24th and its focus was on population and the impacts of future population growth. I was on a panel discussing globalization. The keynote address was given by Thomas Homer-Dixon, who's presentation nicely promoted his latest book. Sadly, he presented for the students a familiar litany of alarmism and potential catastrophe: population growth means energy crisis, and, in conjunction with climate change, "stresses" of "tectonic" proportions for which the only option would be austerity and massive intervention by agents of global governance. Powerful metaphors, suspect theories and selective data: he even invoked Al Gore's movie as an example of excellence in education.

What was refreshing for me was the student reaction next day when I presented my comments. They had listened to Homer-Dixon's litany but had not been deceived by it. They heard me state my disagreement and wanted to understand how my views contrasted, and why, with those of fellow panellist, Maude Barlow: mine free market and individual responsibility, hers the need for collective action and regulation. Same problems, different answers: the basis for good discussion. Passion and advocacy but not the irrational alarmism and dogma of the keynote address.

I left the conference with renewed hope that ideological debate can occur, that engaged students can, and will, seek out their own truths, and that the next generation will not go quietly into the good night. Increased population certainly means change, but that change is not pre-ordained to be cataclysmic, dire nor deprived -- it can indeed be prosperous, informed and unprecedented in its level of human achievement.