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Wikipedia and the Power of Free Thinking

March 18, 2011

There has been much debate recently about the teaching of history in British schools. Traditionalists like Michael Gove, the new Minister of Education, lament the fact that compulsory history education ends when pupils reach thirteen. Others complain that history teachers are poor at explaining the narrative of history – what happened and why, what led to what, and what effect individuals had on the societies in which they lived or ruled. Others still say that there is too much emphasis on social history without explanation of the context.

Traditional history teaching – before the advent of the National Curriculum – always focused on narrative first. My generation learned a set of key dates by heart from an early age – starting with the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William of Normandy defeated the Saxon King Harold and proceeded to conquer England. The narrative skeleton continued through to the present day, citing key moments of English history – the signing of the Magna Carta, the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War, the unification of England and Scotland, and onwards to the conclusion of the Second World War.

I might argue today about the selection of those landmark events and dates I was made to memorise – but not about the teaching approach. Most of them are with me still today. I don’t need to go to Wikipedia to find out the meaning of a rotten borough.

Equally, it is important to understand how our forebears lived, because history is about humans, not just wars, political movements, revolutions, kings and queens. But if I want to understand why my ancestors emigrated to America to escape starvation in the blighted potato fields of Ireland, I need to understand why Ireland faced starvation in the first place. And it’s not enough to know that 40% of Europe’s population died in the Black Death – it’s equally important to understand that the depopulation of England ended for ever the feudal life of the average English peasant.

I mentioned that I didn’t need to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the essentials of English history. But I do see Wikipedia as one of the greatest boons of the internet age. I use it frequently to discover things I don’t know – and not just history. Jimmy Wales’s objective to create a resource available to speakers of every major language in the world is perhaps the most civilising project of modern times – comparable to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and to the liberating effect of the translation of the Christian bible in the early days of the Reformation.

The scholars of Baghdad took works of philosophy and science from all over the known world and translated them into Arabic, only for those works – and many new discoveries and schools of thought flowing from them – to be subsequently translated into Latin and used as the feedstock of the European Renaissance.

The translators of the Bible ensured that never again would the layperson need to rely upon the interpretation of an established priesthood in order to understand the meaning of the scriptures. The scriptures could henceforth speak directly to the individual.

This is not to say that Wikipedia – like any body of knowledge assembled from many sources – is not flawed. But it is priceless as a jumping-off point to many other sources of knowledge. It is then up to you to come to your own conclusions on what you see and read – as my history teachers encouraged me to do.

We live in a world in which many of us are told what to think, and sometimes ordered what to believe – by teachers, by priests, by governments and by parents.

Historians of the future might cite the social media as the most influential promoter of free speech in this century. But free speech does not necessarily mean free thinking. I believe that those historians will point to Wikipedia as the means by which millions will have learned to think for themselves, and to escape the shackles of conventional wisdom.

And it will be through free thinking that our civilisation will move to a better place.

  1. Interesting – thanks for the read. We interviewed Jimmy Wales, in fact, on Thursday for the Dubai Today radio show on 103.8FM – we’ll be playing the interview Sunday morning a little after 10am if you’re interested.

    He seems terribly unfazed about it all. 365 million visitors, over 18 million entries and he’s unfazed. He’s also terribly concerned at the almost total lack of content in Arabic – just 140,000 entries…

    • That’s very telling, isn’t it? It would be interesting to know how many visitors they have from the Arab world. I’ve heard that only about 25% of Facebook users in this region use the Arabic interface. Perhaps the “liberation” of Egypt will act as a catalyst for the resurgence of Arabic across a number of spheres. An Arabic Wikipedia taskforce would surely hasten that resurgence. I’d love to listen to the interview, but it might be difficult to access it from Thailand unless you have an internet feed.

      • Don’t forget that Facebook figure is based on a relatively recent Arabic roll-out – and also represents much of the new growth in Facebook – we reckon Arabic Facebook growth will be very strong indeed throughout 2011 (see

        The show is streamed at and podcast later on in the day, too.

  2. Andrew Morton permalink

    Certainly the students I teach in a (largely working class) sixth form college, generally lack any coherent mental map of history and this also goes for politics, literature and anything else you might care to mention. This may be down to the widening of the educational franchise, but it may also be to do with the way history is taught. I hate to agree with Gove, but it does appear that in many areas the basic groundwork of education has not taken place. The rather silly philosophy of “teaching and learning” may have something to do with this, emphasizing, as it does, a series of acceptable procedures in the classroom while discouraging the simple dissemination of knowledge. Again, this philosophy rests on the erroneous assumption that education is simply coaxing out of the student what he or she already knows. (Plato’s slave, perhaps.)

    I too find WIKI very useful at times, but I use it within the framework of a wider awareness, a framework which the great majority of my students lack entirely.

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