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Originally published Friday, October 21, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Guest columnist

Save the children by fighting 'truthiness'

The Web wilderness of information confronting children poses new challenges. Guest columnist Mark Ray, a teacher librarian and Washington's 2012 Teacher of the Year, says school libraries and librarians are a critical to helping children learn to discern facts from "truthiness."

Special to The Times

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TRUTHINESS is hurting America. And I'm not going to take it anymore.

According to Wikipedia, this term, coined by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, is "truth" that a person feels intuitively "from the gut" or that "feels right" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness could be heard on a recent weekend when NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" posed the following question:

"(Presidential candidate) Herman Cain ... said that even though 'I don't have the facts to back this up,' he believed:

A. If he were to capture Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geith-ner, Mr. Geithner would grant him three wishes.

B. The White House is orchestrating the Occupy Wall Street protests to distract attention from its own record.

C. Phil Collins is the greatest singer-songwriter ever.

D. Kittens are the snuggliest."

The correct answer is B. But any of the answers are correct, because with truthiness, the clause "I don't have the facts to back this up" permits anyone with a blog or microphone to fabricate "truths" that are published and distributed on the Web in nanoseconds. And if you read it on the "Internets," it's bound to be true.

On Oct. 3, I was named the 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year. I am a teacher librarian. Since then, I have been fielding questions from reporters curious about what teacher librarians do and somewhat surprised that they even made school libraries anymore. Their core question is, "why do we need libraries and teacher librarians?"

It's simple. Among other things, librarians fight truthiness. And truthiness is bad for America. That makes libraries and librarians good for America. As a teacher librarian, my job is to ensure that students are effective users and producers of information and ideas. All teachers should be doing this, but right now, my classroom colleagues are working hard to make sure students pass their tests.

In this 21st century, we consume information by turning to a screen instead of a newspaper or book. In the past, we could go to the library and find materials that were likely to be accurate or at least balanced. While I'm not advocating a return to a time when libraries or books were the only place to go for information, I'm also sure that "The Google" is not a library. Today, we must make decisions about bias, currency and accuracy ourselves. Many students struggle with that.

Thanks to the Web, anyone can create ideas and information. For our students, this is a wonderful thing, vesting learning with authenticity and purpose and allowing them to use networks to collaborate, create and share their work and thinking with others throughout the world. But it is a learned skill and an awesome responsibility.

I teach digital citizenship and information literacy, which are about being safe, responsible, effective, informed and active as part of our society. These skills include both using and producing information with rigor, fidelity, fairness and purpose. While responsible adults would be loath to leave children alone on a dark suburban corner, they seem content to allow their children to attempt to make meaning from a screen and remain silent as districts close libraries and defer 21st-century information skills as something to be done tomorrow.

Truthiness is a pox on our society. Trading conjecture for the confirmed and sound bites for the hard work of research, scholarship and attribution, truthiness is a laziness of the mind. And like childhood obesity, it will cost our country far more than we realize.

Much has been written about the current political gridlock and social polarity that define the nation our children will inherit. Scholars contrast ours with earlier times when quaint words like compromise, concord and comity allowed us to do great things. Those great things were predicated on the ability to base decisions on facts and shared core ideas, not on our gut.

Getting to the truth has never been harder than it is today. The loss of libraries, teacher librarians and the ascendance of truthiness fundamentally hurts our nation. We are losing the expertise, resources and skills necessary to be informed voters and citizens. This is not about politics. All corners of the political and cultural debate contribute to our factually impaired fog. This is about fundamentally preparing our young people to be successful in work, college and life.

Truthiness is bad for America. And I have the facts to back that up.

Mark Ray is the 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He is a teacher librarian and instructional technology facilitator at Skyview High School in Vancouver.




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