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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.

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"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.


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