Neil Eckardt 10:22, 26 December 2006 (EST)
1. Today is Wednesday, October 4th, 2006, and baseball is on my mind. The New York Mets open a playoff series against the
Los Angeles Dodgers this afternoon. I am a Mets fan, and I'm excited about the playoffs beginning. My excitement reminds me of how I felt about baseball when I was a young boy. Such sentiment is an example of subway thinking or daydreaming. These are our everyday thoughts. Baseball, of course, occupies the minds of many, not just me. Friends of mine, in fact, are going to attend the game - and they might substitute an interest in the Dodgers for my concern with the Mets. Millions of people will watch the game, even though it's on a Wednesday afternoon. The game and the teams garner attention.
2. Such attention raises an important question for educators: Are the Mets relevant to the question of What educates? Is not my sentiment for them - and baseball more broadly - indeed formative? Do not both it (my sentiment) and the object to which it is addressed (the Mets, the playoffs, and baseball) represent material quite relevant to our everyday lives and therefore to the broader context in which education - seen as personal and social formation - occurs?
3. This is not some misplaced blog entry but a page within Wiki-ed that has been created with the deliberate intention of challenging the material thought to be relevant to the question What educates?, and therefore to Wiki-ed as a whole.
4. The problem with creating an encyclopedia that deals specifically with the question of what educates is that there is a very real sense in which everything in the world can be said to educate. This has always been the case, but it is made increasingly obvious to us as 21st century observers immersed in the emerging ubiquity of the world wide web. Historically persons have been apt to associate what educates with technological devices aimed at facilitating human communication. Thus, the alphabet is seen as a tool for educators; as is its incarnation within formal institutions, as is the computer, and now the internet. On the other hand, the Tuesday night trip to the grocery store, located in real physical space, undoubtedly educates - but it is rarely identified as such. Only when such trips can be represented on a technological apparatus like the internet do they develop the potentiality for being understood as educational.
5. In much the same way as the alphabet and the printing press before, the world wide web is completely transforming human civilization. We have at our fingertips an unprecedented flood of information. As of now, this information is a codification or a representation of the happenings in real, physical space. This is bound to change as everything goes wireless and the world wide web is infused into physical reality. But for now, at least, we can probably think of the web as a complex, networked representation of human thought. This idea is far from original. Left-leaning Critical theorists have had their eye on such developments for years. Fredric Jameson, for example, in his essay Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism hypothesized the emergence of an all encompassing network that he called a "cognitive map". Is this not the internet today? Does it not increasingly serve to document, for better or for worse, wider and wider dimensions of human consciousness? What are the pedagogical implications associated with the emergence of such an apparatus? Does the emergence of the web mean that more and more material might be considered "educational"?
6. With the written alphabet eventually came the typed encyclopedia. The primitive encyclopedia served to bring together the world's thinking in a single synopsis - but with limited technological means, and limited relevance to the immediacy of the present. With the emergence of the world wide web - a global, participatory, interactive medium for facilitating communication and storing information - comes the emergence of an encyclopedia whose contents map human cognition in forms not limited to text and through participatory production. The more advanced encyclopedia of the present serves to bring together the world's thinking through visual and textual means and with increasing relevance to the immediacy of the present.
The first students of the alphabet probably felt inundated by information in a manner similar to the way that the internet can make us feel. They turned to create synopses of their inundation to help organize and make sense of it. The same function is being performed by Wikipedia as we speak. We have more information than is processable on the web; we need a way to organize and map it out. Much more than a mere academic resource, Wikipedia is beginning to provide this function, and it is doing so by transforming the meaning and purpose of the human encyclopedia.
7. To reiterate: Wikipedia is completely transforming the usage, production, content - and therefore the concept - of an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is located within a knowledge domain - the internet - that is unprecedented in its size, scope, and epistemic diversity. And in many ways it is the contents of the internet that constitute Wikipedia's relevant subject matter. And while Wikipedia is now a policed site, anyone in the world can register a user name and offer contributions, textual or otherwise. Through these aspects of knowledge production Wikipedia is not only redefining the usage of an encyclopedia through peer-production, but also, or perhaps rather - as a result of its peer-production, and its location and emergence on the world wide web, it is redefining the content, and therefore the concept, of an encyclopedia by illuminating wider and wider dimensions of life as relevant encyclopedic material.
In so doing Wikipedia is making the encyclopedia more relevant to the present, even amid all its historicity. Wikipedia provides linked information not only on concepts, events, and persons pertinent to philosophy, the sciences and commerce; it also pays great attention to current events and popular culture. There are now upwards of one million entries in Wikipedia that never had a home in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; being peer-produced, Wikipedia has in just over a half decade amassed over ten times as many English entries as the centuries old Britannica . More than 500 new pages in the English language have been created in the four and a half hours that I've been working on this essay. Surely some of these pages will be deleted immediately, but it is nevertheless safe to say that through Wikipedia the encyclopedia is being completely reconstituted: everyone, everything, every event is a potential new entry.
8. Don't believe me? Try a search of Wikipedia's contents and you'll be surprised. People who probably would have cared less about an encyclopedia previously are now using the encyclopedia everyday. As of today Wikipedia's
statistics page indicates that the site maintains almost 2.4 million registered users, which is to say nothing of the millions of people who visit the site without registering or contributing. Obviously this number is higher than the number of persons responsible for producing the content in Britannica.
Clearly more contributors - with more information at their fingertips to draw upon - means a wider variety of content. And it shows when one takes a look around Wikipedia's network of linked pages. If one looks purposefully one finds entries on just about anything - from pages on the neighborhood public high school that I attended, to pages on indie rock bands like Interpol, to pages on yesterday's tragic shootings at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, to pages on professional sports teams. But far more interesting results come back if one clicks on the random page link a few times. A recent query directed me to the following pages: (1) Sármellék International Airport in Hungary, (2) Settlement Music School in Philadelphia,
(3) Diddy (dance act) - the stage name of a London DJ, (4) Peter Fallon - an American producer and director for television productions, and (5) Albania at the 2006 Winter Olympics - a documentation of Albania's representation at the world's most recent olympic games. Not one of these entries is to be located in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Check for yourself at Britannica's Online Index.
9. Even in our brief random survey of Wikipedia's entries we find artifacts relevant to popular culture (music and television) and relatively current (or recent) events (the 2006 Olympics). Such artifacts have historically not had much of a home in general encyclopedias - previously only the most influential of events and cultural phenomena justified an entry. Clearly I use this survey for illustrative purposes only. Making definitive claims would require more extensive research - and is beyond the scope of this suggestive essay. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to assume that anyone who spends a day or two around the Wikipedia site will start to realize that it is an encyclopedia with a epistemological dimensionality whose breadth has never been seen before - in one entity - in the entire course of human civilization. Substantively Wikipedia is unprecedented. Procedurally Wikipedia is redefining how persons relate to the encyclopedia and the production of knowledge. As a whole Wikipedia is transforming the Encyclopedia in a way that makes it more relevant and useful to our everyday educational experiences.
10. Examples help us make sense of living amid great historical change, as we do now. It is with this recognition that I point to the example of the Mets - an entity that persons from all over the world pay attention to. I focus on the example of the Mets to help make concrete the implications of encyclopedic expansion. The Mets represent a cultural entity with global appeal to a wide variety of persons. The team's players include one of the few Jewish players in major league baseball, many Latino players, and several African-American players. As a major professional sports team the Mets also represent a major constituent and mediator of popular culture. In New York, for example, where persons from all over the world live together, the Mets, along with the Yankees, are a topic of conversation akin to the weather: they even bring strangers together. In this sense the Mets are an example of a social connector. The team attracts attention - both globally and locally.
A google search for the "new york mets" lists Wikipedia as the third highest hit. Such a high ranking reveals that the Mets Wikipedia page obviously attracts global attention. That this page is part of an actual encyclopedia is important. At present the actual Mets page helps to situate the team's present in relation to its social and historical background. Before Wikipedia there was no common cultural platform for such collaborative knowledge exchange about the Mets. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry on the Mets is the kind of entry that traditional encyclopedias - like Britannica - are voiceless on. This marks a substantive change in the material thought to be relevant to the contents of an encyclopedia: previous forms of the (general) encyclopedia were relatively silent on such matters.
11. That the Mets have a fairly well developed Wikipedia entry poses a coverage problem to the Wiki-ed community: If Wikipedia is to be considered the emergent (general) global encyclopedia of the future and if the Mets are to be seen as an entity relevant to the Wikipedia project, this raises the question of whether an entity like the Mets is relevant to a more specialized encyclopedia like Wiki-ed. To pose the more general question: If the Mets (or any other emergent Wikipedia entry) were historically not seen as a relevant entry in a general encyclopedia but are now, through Wikipedia, seen as relevant indeed - how do we, at the outset, make sense of what is and is not relevant for a more specialized encyclopedia focused on the concept of education? The general encyclopedia is exploding. Seemingly everything and anything is relevant. How, amid such emergent historical transformation, should specialized encyclopedias cope with the question of substantive demarcation? What are the implications for a specialized domain of knowledge that bounds itself amid profound general expansion?
12. On the face of things my question about the Mets might sound absurd. The Mets are a baseball team; part of sports, commerce, entertainment, etc. The Mets fit into one or another conceptual box - which at first glance (probably) does not include educational phenomena. But do not the Mets - in addition to being a solid collection of athletes, a fun collection of personalities, and a formidable player in a gigantic, consumer-based industry - do they not also represent a global cultural entity that millions if not billions of people pay attention to? Should this be true, doesn't that make the Mets pedagogical - that is, an entity with the capacity (or social position) to produce cultural or social formation? And if sports teams are to be seen as relevant entities to the question of what educates - what in fact is not?
13. There are two questions here. One has to do with the philosophical question of what sort of phenomena are ontologically situated to educate. The other has to do with the empirical question of how persons conceive educational phenomena; in other words, where they locate them.
I am primarily interested in the latter question. Historically human societies have dealt with the question of what educates by assigning educational responsibilities to certain institutions. This, in a sense, allowed societies to skirt the general question of what does or does not educate, and to subsequently operationalize the problem: historically what has been taken to educate, from an empirical perspective at least, is schools, or formal institutions of teaching and learning. This is to say: assigning the concept of education to schools - usually real, physical ones with bricks and bathrooms - is the traditional manner in which human societies have dealt with the question of what educates.
14. Now operationalization is to be lamented only when it leads to reification and outdated thinking. And today's world consists of much more than the bricks and bathrooms of the physical dimension. The world wide web is fast becoming the world's universal library - and it operates both outside and within physical space. Wikipedia is fast becoming a participatory tool for mapping this domain and making sense of it. Isn't this precisely the function that schools played when they emerged in human societies many years ago? The physical world is overwhelming in the absence of technological instrumentation. Schools emerged to make sense of this experience. Such schools now have familiar participants called students, teachers, principals, professors, etc.
Now flash forward many, many years and find a more advanced human civilization with complicated, abstract forms of knowledge and serious technological devices for mediating experience in the physical world. Turn to the world wide web - or virtual-cognitive space. The information in this domain is too vast to summarize or get one's mind around. So participatory institutions like Wikipedia emerge to make sense of such inundation - only this time on a grander, global scale, and with all the technological instrumentation and scientific development of our time. The world is no longer just physical; our world is increasingly connected, accessible, small. In this way it is metaphysical in a real, empirical sense. This is another way of saying that the internet is itself metaphysical. It stands outside and within physical space at once. Amid such a perplexing backdrop: Isn't Wikipedia beginning to provide the same function in the world today that some of the first schools did historically? Do not platforms like Wikipedia hold the potential to transform our thinking about formal learning environments in the future?
15. I am trying to suggest that what might educate in the future - from a formal point of view - are participatory, global institutions of information exchange like Wikipedia. This formalist perspective is linked to the more philosophical, informal question of what educates in that Wikipedia, as an institution, is widening the domain of what is considered to be educational life.
Let us return to where we began, with the example of the Mets. I have tried to point out that if we are to maintain that the Mets - a sport team - engages in activity that is pedagogical, we are then left to begin reexamining our ideas about which entities in the broader world are or are not relevant to the question of what educates. The general encyclopedia is growing with leaps and bounds - in form, usage, content, and attention - suggesting that the sphere of what is considered educative might be widening. In this sense a decreasing amount of material might be considered not to educate. From this point of view participatory institutions like Wikipedia might be identified with formal education in the future, and they seem inclined to draw from wider and wider spheres of life in so doing.
It seems to me that, amid profound historical transformation in the contents and production of the first globally produced encyclopedia, providing affirmative answers to the question of what does not educate is a very tenuous ordeal indeed. The sphere of what counts as educational is exploding through Wikipedia. Wiki-ed must take such developments seriously. I see no justifiable answer to my general question but invite replies: If the Mets warrant attention in a general encyclopedia, upon what ground are they to be excluded from one that focuses on addressing the question of what educates?