Tall tales from Webland: You can learn everything about anything on the Web, but is it true?
A high school student discovers the jungles of France and other tall tales in the course of researching his history homework online.
"Pinned down by enemy gunfire," I read, "the D-Day landing troops had to claw their way off the beaches and through the jungle as they made their way into France."
"Wait a minute," I said to my son, who had asked me to check his history homework. "Jungle? Where did you get that?"
"On a website," he said brightly. As in, "Duh, Mom, where else would you do research?"
It had been an epoch or two since I studied high school history, but I was still pretty sure the Allies did not have a big problem with jungles in France during World War II. Hedgerows, yes; jungles, no.
"You might want to double-check that," I said. "France isn't known for its jungles. Here." And I handed him the encyclopedia. Volume 21, to be exact, where World War II shares space with Saint Francis Xavier, Yankee Doodle, and ZIP Codes. Fascinating stuff.
And yet there are those for whom the encyclopedia has lost its charm. Why read a boring old book, they ask, when you can go online and learn everything about anything? Type "D-Day" into a search bar, and you get, well, a virtual jungle of results. The website my son came across had been created by another student as a study guide. Decked out with waving flags and background music, it was snazzy and cute. It just wasn't true.
The D-Day entry in the encyclopedia, by contrast, was simplicity itself – utilitarian prose that spoke volumes: "At 6:30 a.m., troops from the United States, Britain, Canada, and France stormed ashore on a 60-mile front in the largest seaborne invasion in history." Within five minutes, my son had a grasp of the basic facts, sans jungle, with time to spare for the two historic photographs and one map that illustrated the article.
But encyclopedias are outdated so quickly, the critics say. True, you won't find LeBron James or the Gulf oil spill, or even Barack Obama in our 14-year-old set. But that doesn't invalidate what you will find there: intriguing introductions to a vast array of topics that remain relevant. The nations that fought on D-Day don't change. Nor does the origin of ZIP Codes or why Yankee Doodle called the feather in his hat macaroni (the joke was on the Brits). Even entries that are out of date illuminate. Yugoslavia, anyone?
So for our family, the encyclopedia has been a trusty starting point. And I prefer the books to the electronic version. You'll find falcons, football, and the Roman Forum in Volume 7, but not Facebook, or any other online distraction so tempting to a teenager. You cannot click out of an encyclopedia entry.
Or can you? What I really love about the encyclopedia (aside from the pictures) is the random juxtaposition of knowledge. No sooner do you finish reading about D-Day than your eye alights on the Doolittle Raid entry, and you're off again, curiosity aroused. Turn a few pages and admire the wrens. I was happy to see that my sons did the same over the years, discovering Lincoln and lions, space and Spartacus. What a world!
The encyclopedia set may not get quite the same workout this school year: My last son is off to college. I know it's a jungle out there, but I trust he'll do well. After all, his knowledge is encyclopedic.