Posted by: Dirk | February 14, 2014

Wikipedia 1, professor 0

I am grading student papers (already) and it is interesting to see how students use information to write their papers. What I have often found is that students use Wikipedia, which has led to interesting ideas like the existence of a liquidity premium of 3%. The information came from Wikipedia (Germany), and since I cannot find it I hope someone deleted it. Now, in a new twist, I had a student using as a source the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (federal central for political education). This article by Hermann Sautter, who is a professor at the University of Göttingen whom I worked for as a student, says that the US proposal won the day at Bretton Woods whereas Wikipedia speaks of a compromise between US and UK. Those familiar with the matter would side with Hermann Sautter, since the Keynesian Bancor proposal clearly lost out and the White plan won. A new book by Benn Steil – The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order – seems to provide new evidence towards this interpretation. I haven’t read it, but this paragraph on the publisher’s website says it all:

Upending the conventional wisdom that Bretton Woods was the product of an amiable Anglo-American collaboration, Steil shows that it was in reality part of a much more ambitious geopolitical agenda hatched within President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury and aimed at eliminating Britain as an economic and political rival. At the heart of the drama were the antipodal characters of John Maynard Keynes, the renowned and revolutionary British economist, and Harry Dexter White, the dogged, self-made American technocrat. Bringing to bear new and striking archival evidence, Steil offers the most compelling portrait yet of the complex and controversial figure of White–the architect of the dollar’s privileged place in the Bretton Woods monetary system, who also, very privately, admired Soviet economic planning and engaged in clandestine communications with Soviet intelligence officials and agents over many years.

The disturbing thing is that the student sides with crowd wisdom and against the academic. While democracy is a nice thing to have, it is utterly wrong to say/think “what the majority believes must be right”. The way that students use the internet and the problem arising from an abundance of publications should be addressed more specifically. A course in methodology might be something to think about for the institutions of higher learning. Otherwise, the way social science is done might be changed towards the worse. I am sure other social sciences face the same problem. It is a question of culture: if in doubt, who do you turn to?


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