When I was a child, I longed to own a set of World Book Encyclopedias so I wouldn’t have to beg my mother to drive me to the local library whenever I was assigned a school report. I imagined the ease of doing research in my very own home. Over the years, Encyclopedia salesmen, in their felt fedoras and suspenders, came calling at our house on Hayloft Circle. I’d listen in on the conversation between the screen door as my mother kindly said, “We’ll think about it,” knowing full well that meant NO. "Why have something that takes up so much space and costs so much money when you can borrow it for free?"
But the Encyclopedia salesmen all did something that forever changed the trajectory of my academic knowledge. So that my mother had something to ponder and peruse, they each gave her the “A” volume to try out. “No obligation to buy and you can keep it even if you determine you don’t want the rest,” they’d tell her.
That is how it came that my family owned the A Encyclopedia Brittanica, Funk & Wagnall’s Volumes 1 and 2, Colliers Book A and the A World Book Encyclopedia, which meant that when my 4th grade teacher assigned animal reports, I did mine on the aardvark. When my 7th grade teacher’s fall project was countries of the world, I chose Argentina. Throughout my childhood I did reports on the Amazon, Arizona, Agamemnon, Abigail Adams, Arches National Park, Jane Austen, Argon, Benedict Arnold and Attila the Hun.
Of course I often needed more than one source or a book that wasn’t an Encyclopedia, so I still had to spend time thumbing through card catalogues and wandering the stacks in a quest to follow the trail of the dewey decimal system. But those encyclopedias always got me started in my attempt at the quickest report. I preferred to spend my time on its presentation, drawing and coloring the most elaborate cover sheets and designing unique visual aides out of things I found around the house. This was before there were stores like Staples and Michael’s to help with your every crafty need. Shoeboxes, empty thread spools, bottle tops, construction paper and Popsicle sticks could become the Arch of Augustus or an igloo in Antarctica.
Today, however, the access to information is too easy. If I can’t recall the habitat of the aardvark in casual conversation, it is available in seconds on my smartphone (You don’t need to break out your phone; They’re from the southern two-thirds of the African continent). When my children ask a question that I can’t immediately answer, I say “Look it up!” and they do. Then and there. I don’t have to say, “Let’s look that up when we get home,” or “Hold that thought until Tuesday when we should have time to swing by the library.”
Now, while we’re driving through Yosemite, we can investigate the history of Half Dome from the safety of our car. No need to read the plaque at the crowded viewpoint by the side of the road. While we’re hiking along the cliffs, we can determine the height of Bridal Veil Falls and know within seconds the amount of water that has cascaded over the cliff since the last snowstorm. That is, of course, if I would let them take their phones out and would stop preaching about being present and pointing out people who are about to walk off a precipice while checking email or taking selfies on moss-covered rocks over a dangerous crevasse.
But that is a different story.
When I was a kid, we took what we read in books as definitive information. Afterall, it wouldn’t have been published if it weren’t true, right? But when my now teenagers first began using the computer for elementary school projects, we had to remind them to fact check. Wikipedia can be wrong. Anyone can make an edit to this “free encyclopedia” and entries can be vandalized and will stay up until discovered by the internet “police.”
Once, when my son was in fifth grade, students were researching North American explorers. A group of children came into class insisting that Meriwether Lewis was born in 1935 and was the first weatherman for NBC News. The teacher was baffled. They were all swearing it was true and they weren’t close friends who were likely to have shared notes. Frustrated, she checked Wikipedia and found an entirely made-up biography detailing how he admired Ernest Hemingway and was an avid deep-sea fisherman in his spare time and also enjoyed spelunking.
Back in North Carolina in the 1970’s, surrounded by a stack of popsicle sticks and rubber cement that my brother rolled into balls pretending they were boogers as he fake-sneezed them into my hair and onto mom’s Karastan rug, I tried to concentrate on building the perfect 16th-century Algonquian Village. As an East Coast kid, I’d never heard of the California missions. When I forced my children to use paper mache and plant life from our yard to construct the San Carlos Borremeo de Carmelo and Santa Barbara Missions in forth grade, they complained because their friends were getting kits complete with golden bells and miniature orange trees from Michael’s. “They didn’t have things like that when I was a kid,” I muttered in a voice that resembled my grandfather complaining that our family was highfalutin for having more than one television in the house. “We used the lint we found under the couch to make tumbleweed and we were grateful for it.”
My four-A-Encyclopedia education got me into one of the top public Universities in the nation. My High School had no Advanced Placement classes, and while I’m sure I had homework and I recall working hard on several term papers, I still had time for an after school job and multiple extracurriculars. Back then college tuition was $429 a semester and my room ran me just over $1000 a year. To save money, I became a Resident Assistant and I graduated in four years for less than $6000, beer included.
My children have regularly spent three to four hours a night writing and researching on the computer, and it is clear they need a cadre of AP classes to get into the colleges that interest them. Their sports teams and extracurriculars demand countless more hours each afternoon and on weekends. There is no time to earn those $6000 I needed for college. Only now, that $6000 would get them maybe a quarter’s tuition. The possibility of life-long debt in order to go to the school they’ve overworked and overstressed about looms over them.
And as if our children didn’t already have enough stress in their lives, they now have to navigate all the false information being planted by Russians and others into our newsfeeds and likely into other seemingly authentic sources.
While I'm glad I and my children are becoming more astute about the information we accept as truth, sometimes I wish a salesman would come to the door and I could reduce their stress with a full 22-volume set of World Book Encyclopedias. Fact-checking and historical veracity be damned. “This here is all the truth you need, my children,” I’d say. “The only President with a tarnished reputation within these books is Richard Nixon. Christopher Columbus is unquestionably a hero who discovered both America and that the earth is round. Pluto is the ninth planet and you know what else, I’ll let you use my typewriter anytime you want. It has a correction ribbon and everything.”