Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age

By Mattlage, Alan | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age


Mattlage, Alan, Journal of Information Ethics


Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age Thomas Leitch, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 20i4. i64 pp. $29.95. ISBN 978-i-42i4-i53-2

Developments in computer technology have had a profound effect on publishing and higher education, particularly on the authority of professors (and all instructors). In many cases, the effects have been welcome extensions of traditional practices. As a case in point, course management systems have allowed professors and students more quickly to share resources, communicate, and manage traditional aspects of a semester's work-from accessing the course syllabus to delivering the final grade. For the most part, course management systems have not disrupted the traditional role of professors in higher education. The authority of the professor still remains intact, at least to the extent that the professor chooses to assert that authority.

Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) on the other hand, have been greeted with a good deal more apprehension by professors. While they promise a university-wide distribution of its name and brand, they appear to threaten the diversity of opinion within higher education. Instead of delivering countless courses on a subject to countless classes of students as academia traditionally has, the MOOC has delivered single courses to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide. Students are able to easily access a MOOC and compare the instructor's lectures and opinions against their own instructor. That a MOOC instructor has such a powerful platform generates the impression that his or her opinion is correlatively important. Still, the authority of the instructor is based on his or her sponsoring college or university and credentials.

The same is not necessarily true of Wikipedia authors who no doubt have even larger audiences. The growth of Wikipedia poses profound questions regarding authority that are increasingly intruding into higher education. In Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age, Thomas Leitch examines these questions in detail. More importantly, he uses his examination of the questions to illuminate the concept of author- ity itself. The result is not only a work that provides a better understanding of Wikipedia, but one that provokes deep reflection on the very foundations of higher education. Leitch writes that his work focuses on "the intricate dance between the keepers of liberal education and the users and purveyors of online knowledge, embodied in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia" (p. i) and that Wikipedia and liberal education in the academy are "codependent antagonists" (p. 5). He observes that the very paradoxes of authority that are raised by Wikipedia are present in a traditional liberal education.

Leitch sensibly devotes his introduction to considering the definition of authority, distinguishing epistemic authority from moral authority; however, he muddles the issue by going on to describe the three forms of authority advanced by Max Weber: rational, traditional, and charismatic and then applies these distinctions to epistemic authority. Weber's analysis of authority is more properly restricted to moral authority. That is, Weber's three forms are bases upon which the exercise of power is deemed to be legitimate. In contrast, epistemic authority requires some connection to truth and not merely political legitimation. Of course, truth is not easily determined, and so Leitch should not be completely faulted for blurring the divide. How we determine the truth often (even usually) depends upon who we take to be expert and how reliable we deem the expert to be. These are the aspects of epistemic authority that concern Leitch and they certainly implicate Weber's forms of authority. This is especially true in the liberal arts, where the strictures of the physical world are not as demanding as they are in, say, the hard sciences. By importing the criteria for moral authority into an examination of epistemic authority, Leitch sets up the main questions of his book: to what extent is the authority of Wikipedia different from the authority of liberal education in higher education and to what extent is one superior to the other? …

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