Wikipedia History Wars

July 25, 2008 at 7:01 pm 3 comments

Originally posted at Liberation Frequency. Posted here with some edits and changes.

So, the idea of Wikipedia is pretty amazing. Frankly, I think it’s one of the best unschooling tools there is. I’m fairly sure Ivan Illich (who wrote the infamous Deschooling Society) would have approved. Illich, long before the time of the internet, called for “networks” to be made up of unschoolers, deschoolers, homeschoolers, and etc (well, these names weren’t in popular use at the time – but the idea was there none-the-less). These networks would be large contact books, file cabinets, written essays, learning tools, and so on composed by and for radical learners, teachers, and anyone else who wanted access to them. So basically, this was the internet – just without the internet part. John Holt (way before the internet as well) also called for free, accessible, learning tools that would help individuals explore, satisfy, and expand upon their curiosity. Wikipedia does all of these things, and additionally, it’s a tool that is mostly controlled by the learners. There is very little hierarchy in the world of Wikipedia when it comes to authoring and sharing information, and all knowledge is equally accessible to all peoples. At any moment when the learner has access to a computer, the internet, and a question – they can easily seek out an answer. On top of that, if they want, they can contribute to, change, or challenge the information. Most of the time, they are directly linked with the information they are learning. Wikipedia’s free, vast, and learner-controlled encyclopedia is only continuing to expand. It is both an individual learning tool and a collective teaching tool.

Unfortunately, that is all contrasted by one major problem: Wikipedia’s staunch dedication to “neutrality.”

The idea of Wikipedia being neutral is impossible, at least in regards to certain topics. Science is not neutral. History is not neutral. Wikipedia attempts to remain neutral by labeling some of its pages with a headline “The neutrality of this article is disputed” and by putting in its rules section that articles must follow a neutral approach. By doing this, it is trying to prevent itself from being a propaganda outlet – it does not want its pages to argue one way or another, it wants to present only “the facts.” Unfortunately, this is impossible – especially with history. As I argued in a previous post, history is not neutral – it is not a set of facts to be memorized and regurgitated. It is a collection of arguments and controversies, and the purpose of learning history should be to sift through these disputes and to come to one’s own conclusion. Unfortunately, with Wikipedia’s “neutral” policy, much of this is prevented. Most of the time, the status quo opinion is presented. In some cases, there are sections dedicated to “controversies” or “criticisms” on the topic. Yet, Wikipedia, with its “neutral” policy, settles the debates that encompass history for us. More likely than not, this means that for a topic to be neutral it must be “supported by the evidence” – which really means that it follows in line with the hegemonic view. And, as we know, these histories aren’t always the ones that are really “historically accurate.” Often they are the distorted “facts” that were ready made for our textbooks. Luckily, we do have the power to combat this in the world of Wikipedia. This can be extremely important, because Wikipedia is ever-growing and so are the number of people that use it. However, in the past, those of us who dissented from the typical representations of history were not on equal footing to combat the unfortunate falsehoods that have been spread. While we’re still not on that equal playing field in Wikipedia (with the neutrality rule and the vast numbers of standard-history-believers), it is a medium that gives us a much stronger fighting chance – and a place that we can truly (and sometimes subtly) make a “historical” difference. Through guerrilla efforts, we have the ability to bring forward alternative and underrepresented histories.

I often find myself browsing Wikipedia to see what it has to say on certain historical topics. Sometimes I am downright horrified, occasionally I am disappointed, and other times I am admittedly surprisingly satisfied with what I find. During those times that I am horrified or disappointed, I decide to make small changes – small enough to go unnoticed by those major-editors so that they won’t be erased or undone, but large enough to make a difference. Sometimes the change I make does go noticed, and it’s reverted back, so I’ll wait a while to make the change again or to make another similar change. There are times where the change is kept, sometimes they become added onto, or on some occasions they are continually undone. Other times, I will add simple one or two sentence additions to articles saying such things as “However, this is a controversial subject because…”, “Yet, there are some people who believe that this is not true – and in reality…”, or “There are some who disagree with the terms used here and these historical accounts. They believe that…” I like to think of these as the Wikipedia History Wars.

For instance, I once searched the topic of “slave revolts.” I made my way through the article, and finally came to its discussion on North America. Here’s what it had to say about the abolitionist John Brown:

John Brown had already conducted several massacres of proslavery settlers in Kansas, when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). This raid was an attempt by a handful of white men to cause a slave revolt in the South. It failed in this attempt; in fact, the first man they killed was a local freed black man.

Obviously, I couldn’t let this stand. Here is what I changed it to:

John Brown had already fought against pro-slavery forces in Kansas for several years when he decided to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). This raid was a joint attack by former slaves, freed blacks, and white men who had corresponded with slaves on plantations in order to form a general uprising amongst slaves. It almost succeeded, had it not been for Brown’s delay, and hundreds of slaves left their plantations to join Brown’s force – and others left their plantations to join Brown in an escape to the mountains. Eventually, due to a tactical error by Brown, their force was quelled. But directly following this, slave disobedience and runaways sky-rocketed in Virginia

My change was reverted back to the original, until some re-reverted it to account I had written, and that’s what it has stayed as to this day. Now, it may have helped that my paragraph had a citation and the other did not – even though in many places the first account is often the historical portrait that John Brown is painted in by our textbooks and our national myths.

In reality, I wish there were a wikipedia-esque site that was dedicated to history in that it allowed for the articles not to be decided and “reporting the facts”, but to discuss the controversies, the different viewpoints, and the debates that encompass them – but also where to go or what tools to get to follow different arguments. I believe that would be the best atmosphere for learners to formulate their own conclusions. However, that is not what Wikipedia is about. Its purpose, at least in the history department, is to relay historical information in a narrative and decided voice. So, in this particular arena, we can make the subversive changes that represent the histories that we believe in. Of course, others who disagree will do this too. That is why Wikipedia, in one aspect, is seriously flawed – everyone will be changing the histories to fit their views. Yet, it is currently the most powerful tool on the internet that we can use to make the changes we view as necessary and represent the histories we believe to be true. It is one place, at least for now, where we have the ability to truly challenge the monopoly of information that the status quo has held for a long, long time. We should seize that chance. Wikipedia is growing larger and larger, and the amount of people who read and view it is astronomical. The small and subtle changes that we make, or even the large and dynamic ones, can truly make a difference in the way people think about history.

For kicks, here’s the latest change I’ve made on Wikipedia. On the page for the history of the town of Carlisle, PA it had only this to say about the Carlisle School:

Carlisle was well-known at one time for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which trained Native Americans from all over the United States; one of its notable graduates was athletic hero Jim Thorpe.

Now, it says this:

Carlisle was well-known at one time for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which trained Native Americans from all over the United States; one of its notable graduates was athletic hero Jim Thorpe. However, some view the Carlisle School as the first of many schools that were used for “cultural genocide” of American Indians. Shortly after the Wounded Knee Massacre, Native Americans were forcefully taken from their families on the newly instituted reservations, sent to Carlisle, and were forced to give up their dress, languages, customs, religious views, sciences, and all other parts of their culture (often times physical force and abuse was used to institute this policy). After this, the American Indian “students” were sent back from Carlisle to their reservations to teach their families how to be what the United States government identified as “civilized.”

Have you made any history or cool changes to Wikipedia? Share ’em here!



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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jacob  |  July 29, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    So the coolest thing about history is that there are so many different ways to interpret it, as you point out. Discussing the controversies is a really important thing, and I think I have seen wikipedia articles that do have sections for controversial or continuing discussions of what people think the ‘facts’ are. Why not use those or create them where they don’t exist?

  • 2. Brian  |  July 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    Hey Jacob, that’s definitely a really good point – and I agree that’s currently how people should be using Wikipedia. My only problem is that Wikipedia’s stance on neutrality (which is written into its terms of service as nonnegotiable) remains a problem. As long as people get information from a source that claims to be neutral, they might think that the information they’re getting is unbiased – and thus not subject to mistakes/lies/etc. (whether conscious or unconscious). I’m not saying that by being non-neutral, Wikipedia should try to take a side, but instead it should admit that what is written in it is influenced by cultural biases and backgrounds. Thus, I think it might be important to start a wiki-like place that is designed for these discussions and controversies that doesn’t claim to be neutral (or at least to get Wikipedia to revoke it’s “neutrality” stance.)

    However, I do agree with you that we should be trying to write into Wikipedia the controversies where they don’t currently exist – thus starting a dialouge and debate.

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