Reference books? Give me Wikipedia

White bread for young minds, says university professor

There is more than an echo of that arch patrician, Lady Ludlow, in the scathing criticism being directed against the internet and its unlimited diet of free information. She it was, in the BBC's delectable serialisation of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford, who dismissed the notion that the lower classes should be given access to education. Teaching them to read, she said, would simply distract them from saying their prayers and serving the landed gentry.

Today it is the University of Google that stands accused of purveying the new socialism by offering equality of information to everyone. Modern students, say the critics, are being handed unlimited supplies of dubious facts from online sources such as Wikipedia, without the means of distinguishing between the good and the bad. Because they no longer have to sift through books and carry out their own research, the students' sense of curiosity has been blunted. The internet provides “white bread for the mind” and it is breeding a generation of dullards.

Let them read books, commands the impressively named Professor Tara Brabazon, of the University of Brighton where she is Professor of Media Studies. She says that she has banned her own students from using Wikipedia or Google as research sources, and insists they read printed texts only. In a lecture, she argues that only thus will we produce the critical thinkers that the nation needs.

I fear the professor is blaming the messenger rather than the message. It is not the uneven quality of facts found on the internet that is to blame for uninquiring minds, it is the way they have been taught to think - and the way their written work is marked.

I doubt if there is any difference between the undergraduates of my generation, who crammed for exams by creaming off selected quotes from recommended texts and then learning them by rote, and those of today who download convenient passages from Wikipedia. The difference lies in the use they make of the material. If they are encouraged to believe that predigested information is an end in itself, and if they are then given high marks for the result, they will simply conclude that that is the outcome that society requires of them.

If, on the other hand, they learn that they have a gateway to knowledge unprecedented in the history of man, and that this opens up access to sources of information that they might never have glimpsed as they struggled with poorly equipped libraries unhelpful staff and unimaginative lecturers, then they will realise that, far from blunting curiosity, it sharpens it.

Academics like Professor Brabazon reveal a Ludlow-like snobbery towards Wikipedia that is becoming ever harder to justify as the site itself improves. A year ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was outraged when the magazine Nature carried out a comparison between it and Wikipedia, and concluded that the service offered by the two were more or less on a par (Britannica had 2.9 minor errors per article, Wikipedia had 3.9).

The difference today is likely to be even less, because Wikipedia can correct itself so swiftly. That it is open to outside contributors of uncertain quality is part of its nature. But precisely because of this, there are thousands of eagle eyes ready to pounce on errors of fact or interpretation. Vandal editing - the deliberate distortion of facts by people known in the trade as “sockpuppets” - is now routinely detected, and particularly vulnerable pages are protected from interference.

Of course, there is always the risk of inaccurate information. But is any dictionary, encyclopaedia or historical work immune from it? Should I trust Macaulay's error-littered, Whig-biased History of England simply because it is bound in leather and will take a trip to the library to find? Is the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to be relied on because it has 60 volumes and a worldwide reputation, or should I listen to the detractors who have found errors in its entries for Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale and George V? And is the Britannica quite as magisterial as its title suggests?

I did a quick test on my own, looking up Nancy Mitford (I'm a fan) and judging the results on time and accuracy. Wikipedia gave me four pages of almost 100 per cent accurate information (I rang her niece, Emma Tennant, who spotted one small error), together with 33 links to related characters and a 16-line bibliography suggesting further reading. I got the whole lot in ten seconds.

The Britannica required a 20-minute trip to my nearest library. It gave me 350 words and a bibliography with one entry (Harold Acton's memoir). The online version offered the chance of signing up to a 30-day free trial, but still required my credit card details, replete with reassurances about taking my privacy “very seriously” - always a worrying sign. The DNB provided by far the best and fullest entry (but so it should). However, a month's subscription costs £29.35, and a year will set you back £195 plus VAT.

What Professor Brabazon and cohorts of internet critics appear to be advocating is that those who require reliable information - the academic term is “peer-reviewed” - should be made either to work for it, or to pay for it. Curiosity, it seems, can only be stimulated by trawling library shelves or by shelling out substantial amounts of money.

The rest of us must fall back on the poor man's legacy, the internet, where we will encounter trivia, inaccuracy and lazy opinions lazily received. It's a useful caricature, of course, for those whose business it is to maintain a two-tiered society. But it suggests that not much has changed since the Church railed against men like Wycliffe and Tyndale who had the temerity to translate the Bible from Latin into English and thus allow it to be read by the great unwashed.

Magnus Linklater