The value of encyclopedic knowledge

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13Nov01. What is the value of encyclopedic knowledge? As Wikipedians move into the metapedia and Wikipedia begins to get back to the serious business of creating encyclopedia articles, my musings have returned to a topic that is of great interest to me. I ended my formal academic training seventeen years ago at the Bachelor's level. I took my school's exhortation about lifelong learning seriously, though, and I have continued to study and read informally. When the World Wide Web began spreading information at an accelerated rate not seen in the world since Gutenberg's printing press, I thought I had finally found the ultimate means to acquire knowledge. (Hypertext is the foundation of the Web's power.) Then, when I found the Wikipedia, I knew I had arrived. There is so much knowledge already stored at Wikipedia, and the content is growing so fast, that I hold out little hope of absorbing all that I even want to know! (And that's not counting what I don't care about, like rock bands. :-)

I just finished adding to the outline at the stub article, History of Christianity. Students spend years -- even lifetimes -- just attempting to master that single subject. But that article, like all others at Wikipedia, will evolve powered by numerous scholars around the world. We're privileged to count a philosopher, an art historian, a mathematician, and a medieval historian (to name only the few I'm most familiar with) among the ranks of Wikipedians. What a treasure trove of knowledge!

So can I really fulfill my dream of acquiring advanced knowledge without the rigors of a graduate education?

I need to get some sleep now, so I'm leaving this undone. Please discuss.

<>< tbc

Yes you can. But it has always been like this: a dedicated person could do it by devoting time and effort into it. The difference is that it's getting much easier and quicker now. You don't have to leave your chair; you click, you read, and you follow your curiosity. Actually this may be in some ways better than the rigors of a graduate education, because _you_, not the professors, get to choose what you will learn and in what order. Basically we're gradually eroding the educational institutions' monopoly over knowledge (but keep in mind that they still have the monopoly over official certification, and will fight tooth and nail to keep it). --Seb

Well, they don't have a monopoly over official certification, if by that you mean certification for a bachelor's degree by taking college courses. Read about Regents College in New York State. Pretty cool.

I have no answer for you, Tim, except to say that the only way a philosopher gets to have the knowledge he has is by (1) reading a bunch of books and papers about a very narrow subject, (2) writing at least several papers about that subject, and (3) talking to other philosophers about the subject. Those are the essential tasks; it isn't necessary to be in a university to do them, but that makes it easier because you have a natural financial incentive to do them. If, like me, you have a 40 hour a week job, you will find it rather difficult to do the reading and writing necessary to keep up your scholarly chops.  :-( --Larry_Sanger