What WikiLeaks Can Teach Teachers

So how does the mess with Julian Assange and Wikileaks apply to what high school English teachers are doing every day? A few obvious connections here. First, many of the works we teach examine the role of free speech in society. I’m thinking of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World. Journalism teachers could also use Wikileaks to explore freedom of the press. But beyond these, I think Wikileaks can illuminate the importance of transparency in schools, particularly in the way students and teachers access the web.

An analogy may serve here: most school administrators attempt to control what students and teachers put on the web–they don’t want students posting to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. They fear, often with good reason, the harm that students and teachers can do by sharing particular information about themselves. To reduce the probability of this happening, they ban access to certain sites, using software filters that typically also restrict perfectly harmless content. More significantly, such filters almost always prevent students from using blogs and social networks in meaningful, educational ways. This amounts to controlling information, and by analogy, compares to the government and corporations trying to prevent Assange and company from releasing previously confidential information.

The question of criminality, of course, complicates the analogy. Most of the material on Wikileaks has been acquired illegally by information insiders. In this regard, Assange is a criminal, at least according to the laws of a number of countries, including ours. Whether this amounts to treason, as Sarah Palin attests, is debatable. But that’s not the point I want to make here.

What is more important is the idea of transparency and how those in power respond when everyone gets access to information that was previously privileged. The Wikileaks mantra is that transparency equals good governance. I think this is also true for schools. Admins who allow teachers and students to access everything are essentially being transparent: no hidden filters, no presumed malfeasance, no content off-limits.

Are there any schools brave enough to allow for this kind of transparency? If not, we’ll keep on seeing the kind of war that Wikileaks has spurred: corporations and government trying to shut down the site; so-called hacktivists responding with attacks of their own. Doesn’t take too much to see this as a battle between tech admins and often-savvier students.

I’ll take transparency every time–at least in our schools.

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About RR

Assistant Professor of English Education at Grand Valley State University.
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