My Greatest Hits
The following pieces of writing produced the greatest reaction, or are simply my favorites. In order from most recent to oldest:
I want to start a conversation. … So, you didn’t know that Wikipedia has a porn problem? Let me say what I do not mean by “Wikipedia’s porn problem.” I do not mean simply that Wikipedia has a lot of porn. That’s part of the problem, but it’s not even the main problem. I’m 100% OK with porn sites. I defend the right of people to host and view porn online. I don’t even especially mind that Wikipedia has porn. There could be legitimate reasons why an encyclopedia might want to have some “adult content.” No, the real problem begins when Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn you can imagine, while being heavily used by children. But it’s even more complicated than that, as I’ll explain.
Efficiency as a basic educational principle (January 2012)
Seize every opportunity to help the individual student to learn efficiently–which occurs when the student is interested in something not yet learned but is capable of learning it, and especially when learning it makes it easier to learn more later. In other words, when an individual student is capable of learning efficiently, seize the opportunity. If students spend too much idle time when they could be learning, if they are learning only a little, if they are not interested in what is being taught, if they have already learned it, or if they will not understand it, then they aren’t learning efficiently. When a certain approach ceases to conduce to efficient learning, try something else. … So far, the principle is unremarkable. But see how I apply the principle to a variety of educational issues.
An example of educational anti-intellectualism (December 2011)
One would expect Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology at Plymouth University in England, to be plugged into and more or less represent the latest academic trends in education technology. If so, I’m a bit scared. I came across Prof. Wheeler’s blog post from yesterday, “Content as curriculum?” If I had wanted to create a parody of both kinds of anti-intellectualism I’ve mentioned recently–among geeks and among educationists–I couldn’t have invented anything better. Wheeler hits many of the highlights, repeating the usual logical howlers as if they were somehow deeply persuasive. While I’ve already debunked a lot of this elsewhere, I thought it would be instructive to see that I have not, in fact, exaggerated in how I characterize the anti-intellectualism of some educationists. Wheeler’s post is so interesting and provocative, I’m going to go through line-by-line.
Let me step back and sum up the views mentioned above: 1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known. Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be. (Cf. this essay of mine.) 2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority. In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites. 3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded. They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can’t be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes. In short, they are boring and irrelevant. 4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much. We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities. We can answer most general questions with a quick search. 5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek. You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.
On Robinson on Education (May 2011)
This very striking video has been circulating, and I’m inspired to reply to it: … First, let me say, that the video design is very cool. Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker. Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties. But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong. … While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true. In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.
Manifesto of Very Early Education (April 2011)
1. Very small children are capable of learning much more than most people realize. When they do, they can benefit significantly for the rest of their lives. 2. In the coming generation, societal awareness and acceptance of very early learning might well change on a massive scale. … 3. Those who dogmatically insist that play, and play only, is the work of childhood sadly misunderstand the virtues of early learning. 4. The education of very small children must be, above all, individualized. You must approach it with creativity, careful observation, and forethought, constantly adjusting what you do with your child. 5. Reading to children is the most important component of any early learning program. Most of our academic knowledge can be gained from books. Those who are in favor of copious reading by parents to children are not, therefore, wholly opposed to early learning. …
Essay on Baby Reading (December 2010)
Can we teach our babies to read? Yes. Should we? Probably. In this essay, I’m going to try to convince parents that it is possible, and may be beneficial, to teach their children to read even while they are babies or toddlers. I also have remarks for researchers throughout. First, I will explain how I taught my own little one, beginning at age 22 months, and introduce some of our methods. Then I will answer various general objections to the notion and practice of teaching tiny tots to read.
What Is the Meaning of Life? (May 2010)
So what is the meaning of life? My answer is: to do what we can to improve, at least by our own lights, the lives of those we care about—which could be extended to all of humanity. In a way, I am admitting that happiness is the purpose of life after all, but I am saying that we find meaning by supporting the happiness of everyone that we can. “Can” is the key word; what we can do depends on our personal circumstances, and that’s what changes over time.
Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (March 2010)
Some Internet boosters argue that Google searching serves as a replacement for our memory and that students need not memorize — need not learn — as much as they did before the Internet. Educationists inspire us with the suggestion that collaborative learning online can serve as “the core model of pedagogy.” Knowledge is primarily to be developed and delivered by students working in online groups. And finally, the co-creation of knowledge can and should take the place of reading long, dense, and complex books. Such claims run roughshod over the core of a liberal education. They devalue an acquaintance with (involving much memorization of) many facts about history, literature, science, mathematics, the arts, and philosophy. Such claims also ignore the individual nature of much of liberal education. Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation, however much they can be assisted by groups, are ultimately individual skills that must, in the main, be practiced by individual minds capable of working independently. And such claims dismiss the depth of thinking that results from a critical reading and evaluation of many long and complex books.
An explanation of the Citizendium license (December 2007)
Since January 2007 when the Citizendium decided to “unfork” from Wikipedia, or delete unchanged Wikipedia articles from our database and encourage original work, the license for our own original articles has been up in the air. We said only, on a generic notice on the wiki, “All new articles will be available under an open content license yet to be determined.” Separately, I made it clear that we were considering the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL for short), the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-by-sa), and the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License (CC-by-nc-sa).
The New Politics of Knowledge (September 2007)
It is a truly striking thing that people come together from across the globe and, out of their freely donated labor and strings of electrons, form a powerful new corporate body. When they do so—as I have repeatedly observed—they develop a sense of themselves as a group, in which they invest some time and can take some pride, and which they govern by rules. In fact, these groups are a new kind of political entity, the birth of which our generation has been privileged to witness. … If we talk about a politics of knowledge, and we take the analogy with politics seriously, then we assume that there is a sort of hierarchy of authority, with authority in matters of knowledge emanating from some agency that is “sovereign.” In short, if we put stock in the notion of the politics of knowledge, then we’re saying that, when it comes to knowing stuff, some people are at the top of the heap.
Education 2.0 (June 2007)
Imagine that education were not delivered but organized and managed in a way that were fully digitized, decentralized, self-directed, asynchronous, and at-a-distance. It is not hard to imagine a digital, decentralized degree-granting institution that “lives” primarily on the Internet, and organizes teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Such an institution need not offer courses, pay teachers, or collect tuition from students at all, but could act merely as a middleman and record transactions.
Who says we know: on the new politics of knowledge (April 2007)
As it turns out, our many Web 2.0 revolutionaries have been so thoroughly seized with the successes of strong collaboration that they are resistant to recognizing some hard truths. As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers. With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff. This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one.
Why Make Room for Experts in Web 2.0? (October 2006)
First premise: some collaborative projects concern things that are directly within the expertise of some people. This is true, for example, of encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, and authoritative links databases. Second premise: for such projects, entrusting some decisions to people who are experts will ensure that those decisions are more likely to be correct. If you disagree with that, then you’re saying that no matter how much you study or get experience with a subject, you never really improve the reliability of your judgment about the subject. Conclusion: it follows that encyclopedia projects, and other projects, will benefit by entrusting some decision-making to the relevant experts. If you want to make sure you’re doing a good job with some knowledge project, it’s a good idea to let people who have the relevant knowledge to make some decisions.
Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (September 2006)
There are tens of millions of intellectuals online today. What is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects? The very thought of that makes me literally quiver with excitement. I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers. Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.
I propose a new “Collation Project” which has the lofty aim of enlisting large numbers of scholars to take scholarly public domain texts, analyze them into paragraph-sized chunks, and shuffle the chunks into a single massive outline–to construct, eventually, The Book of the World. This will have revolutionary implications by making knowledge more easily accessible and smashing interdisciplinary and language barriers. At the same time I propose to start at least three other projects: (1) an Analytical Dictionary Project, which sorts lexicographical data by concept, not word, and puts the result into the same outline as the Collation Project; (2) a Debate Guide Project, which summarizes arguments and positions on all manner of controversy; and (3) an Event Summary Project, which will locate detailed summaries of current events as part of a chronology that is continuous with a historical chronology.
The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir (April 2005)
The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. And the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”–who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.
Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism (December 2004)
Wikipedia has started to hit the big time. Accordingly, several critical articles have come out, including “The Faith-Based Encyclopedia” by a former editor-in-chief of Britannica and a very widely-syndicated AP article that was given such titles as “When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive”. These articles are written by people who appear not to appreciate the merits of Wikipedia fully. I do, however; I co-founded Wikipedia. (I have since left the project.) Wikipedia does have two big problems, and attention to them is long overdue. These problems could be eliminated by eliminating a single root problem. If the project’s managers are not willing to solve it, I fear a fork (a new edition under new management, for the non-techies reading this) will probably be necessary.
Wikipedia and why it matters (January 2002)
The first public speech about Wikipedia delivered by anyone.
Neutral point of view December 2001
Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. Wikipedia uses the words “bias” and “neutral” in a special sense! This doesn’t mean that it’s possible to write an article from just one point of view, the neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. That’s a common misunderstanding of the Wikipedia policy. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct. It’s crucial that we work together to make articles unbiased. It’s one of the things that makes Wikipedia work so well. Writing unbiased text is an art that requires practice. The following essay explains this policy in depth, and is the result of much discussion. We strongly encourage you to read it.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.