Any college student can tell you that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written and endlessly tweaked by the public. Wikipedia is so new that my spellchecker does not recognize the word. But the site already contains over 1,600,000 entries and is now the preferred point of departure for college research papers. Unfortunately, all too many of these papers fail to depart, which is why Middlebury College has now banned Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information for an academic paper.
Wikipedia does have its problems. But it’s generally quite accurate, factually. Through a process of relentless refinement and correction, a Wikipedia entry usually comes to embody the collective state of knowledge of a field, approaching a kind of consensus. Any error, misinformation, or invective that creeps in tends to be spotted in short order and corrected. (Of course, certain subjects lend themselves to sabotage and have been placed beyond the bounds of public editing; as one might expect, readers are no longer invited to tinker with the entries for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
And some students have, with reason, decried the ban as an act of censorship. But one can sympathize with the professors at Middlebury. The larger problem, which I think Middlebury’s ban might address, is that the college student of today tends not to read as much as his counterpart of a generation ago, academically and recreationally. The writing of a college paper today is increasingly less an affair of research (i.e., the gathering and evaluating of data to test a hypothesis) than it is one of information retrieval, in which downloaded material is wrestled into essay form. (The blankest look a professor can get today is in response to the question “Can you tell me about the data that contradict your hypothesis?”) It will be interesting to see if other schools follow up on Middlebury’s quixotic campaign against what is, after all, merely a symptom and not the disease.