|The second is attributed
to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who famously noted, ‘‘Everyone
is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.’’ Moynihan
said it before the term ‘‘wiki’’ entered
the lexicon, forever blurring matters of fact.
The ability to self-publish and to be simultaneously reckless with facts should
raise a warning flag for all modern communicators, but nowhere is the need for
caution greater than in education.
A shift from printed textbooks to electronic formats is well underway and
is, for the most part, a good thing. But a wrinkle is the ease with which digital
teaching materials can be altered, even distorted, by users.
Publisher McGraw-Hill now operates a division called Create, through which
teachers can design their own textbooks. The primary resource for these texts
is McGraw-Hill’s library of over 4,000 books and 5,500 articles, from which
content is culled electronically to create a new book. The finished product is
available in both printed form and as an e-book.
In creating their own volumes, teachers are able to delete portions of existing
texts and intersperse their own writings and notes. The benefit of giving individual
teachers such power is likely to depend not only on their expertise and skill,
but also on such factors as their political and religious beliefs.
Teacher discretion about course material has always varied among schools and
districts, even when old-fashioned printed texts were the only option. Yet, the
statewide or district-wide approval process for books tends to provide a framework
in which teachers must operate. It also gives students the clarity and comfort
that comes from a larger, usually more accomplished, authority.
That’s not to say that textbooks aren’t already facing criticism
in many regions. In Texas, for example, books have been modified by state order
to reflect recently revised views about such things as taxes, separation of church
and state, and what Texas officials have deemed are the ‘‘unintended
consequences’’ of affirmative action. This is troublesome enough
without giving rogue teachers the power to tailor texts to suit a particular
Even the Texas Board of Education stopped short of adopting a proposal that
would have required all textbooks to refer to President Obama only by his full
name, Barack Hussein Obama. But if an individual teacher wishes to have it read
that way in a self-published e-book, it can be done with a few keystrokes.
The Wikimedia Foundation, operator of the enormously popular Wikipedia Internet
encyclopedia, has a companion site known as Wikibooks, containing 2,333 online
textbooks that, the site proudly proclaims, ‘‘anyone can edit.’’ In
an announcement aimed at educators, Wikibooks describes itself as ‘‘uniquely
suited for use in classroom collaborative projects.’’
Is it possible that while many teachers flatly prohibit students from using
Wikipedia for research because of its very wiki nature, some would embrace Wikibooks
as ‘‘uniquely suited’’ for inclusion in class?
The shift into the digital world is not only inevitable; it is essential to
the larger task of modernizing and elevating America’s standing in education.
However, with each new tool comes the requirement for caution.
It is true that a press is no longer needed to publish. But it remains unequivocal
that no one is entitled to his own facts, especially in the classroom.
(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.