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President's Page: To Tell the Truth

When I was in college, the sources of information were clear. You read Time and Newsweek for general news and more specialized publications, like Foreign Affairs in my own field, when you wanted more specialized discussion. When you wrote research papers, you went to the university library and pored through books and creaky back-issue journals. When you wanted to know the fine-grained detail of a technical or controversial topic, you went to your professor or read his (they were mostly his, alas) articles.

My son, by contrast, goes to his college library mostly to buy the fresh sushi they sell 24 hours a day. Like most of our Barnard students, he uses the library as a place to socialize and, occasionally, to work in solitude. But his library research comes through the wireless Internet connection on his MacBook, rather than from the weighty collections that surround him. His answers come from the Web, and particularly from the Wikipedia pages that pop up first in line to nearly any Google query.

I confess that I find this fundamentally scary.

It’s not that I don’t like Wikipedia. I do. It’s not even that I don’t use it; I click to the site quite frequently to check a date or the spelling of a name. But as a researcher and academic—someone who has spent three decades in a university environment—I hesitate to trust an anonymous band of contributors to render judgment on complex topics. Why read the Wikipedia entry on the Cuban Missile Crisis when Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision is sitting on the shelf? Why scroll through the entry on black holes when Barnard’s own Janna Levin explores them so eloquently in How the Universe Got Its Spots?

My son, of course, disagrees. Like many of our Barnard students, I suspect, his view of authority is more diffuse, extending beyond scholarly experts to include all who might choose to weigh in on a certain topic. “But how,” I push him, “can you trust information when you don’t know the source? How can you change truth with the click of a mouse?”

“The problem with your generation,” he shoots back, “is that you crown a few people as experts and think they own the truth. You bestow truth rather than letting people create it.”

We will probably never agree. But arguing with my son and watching our students at Barnard have made me reflect on the ways in which technology has always conditioned our interaction with information. Paintings and drawings constituted the documentary record until they were replaced by photography and evolved into abstraction. Then Photoshop emerged, undermining the documentary value of photography even as it widened its scope as art. Music was once the realm of geniuses like Mozart, written on parchment, and supported by kings. Now, with Garage Band and iTunes, authorship and ownership have both dispersed.

Over the next few years, these trends are almost certain to continue, deconstructing our older notions of expertise and transforming how our students think, learn, and research. It is their job to push us to reimagine our conception of knowledge. And it is our job to join them in constantly searching for truth—even when it shows up in the most unlikely of places.

-Photograph by Paul DeCanio