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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Thursday June 23 "American History by Google and Wikipedia" - Mark Bauerlein
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By James Dudley, June 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

A couple of years ago, an education researcher conducted an experiment in U.S. History on the Web.  He selected 100 terms from the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in the subject (NAEP is the "Nation's Report Card") and typed each one into Google.  The resulting pages of Web sites showed a remarkable uniformity.  For 87 of the terms, Wikipedia came up #1.  It came up #2 on another 12 terms, and #3 for the final one.  The conclusion is obvious: Wikipedia is the toweringly dominant source of historical knowledge for students.

And there is another domination as well: Google.  It is the primary tool of inquiry.  Last year Harris Interactive poll, Google ranked #1 among 18-24-year-olds for brand familiarity and quality.  WHenever they must research a topic, they go to Google first.

Here is the problem.  Google and Wikipedia work too quickly, too conveniently.  It's a paradox, but it's true.  It delivers tailored, specific information in a microsecond, and it packages it nicely for immediate use.  It makes the acquisition of knowledge too swift and easy, the labor of discovering it requiring just a few clicks in the bedroom.

The result is that students don't remember it.  The search and retrieve, cut and paste, print and submit, the process being so practical that the knowledge doesn't lodge in their heads for very long.  The effort of finding it doesn't solicit enough immersion in the subject.  One statistic proves the point. Fully 42 percent of Google searches "click-through" on the top Web site.

This paper will provide specific examples of history-by-Google and history-by-Wikipedia that demonstrate the problem.  It will add counter-examples, history the old-fashioned library way, that produces better long term understandings of the past.  The point is this: nothing is more contrary to the "mystic chords of memory" than a Google search and a Wikipedia dependence.

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Jun 27, 2011 at 10:37 am

I would have disagree with this post. Technology itself is value-neutral: it is neither helps nor harms a student's historical sense. To blame student's lack of historical knowledge or sentiment on technology seems to be an easy way out.

about the author

James Dudley
James Dudley

I finished my BA in History and Political Science at Villanova University in 2008.  I am a recent Navy veteran, and am currently on the staff of ISI.