Information is power
By Skip Mendler
Here are some seemingly unrelated phenomena that have crossed my path in the past few days.
Coach Ken Carter. A fictional, but statistically accurate Venezuelan peasant girl. The No Child Left Behind Act. The Selective Service System. And a typo in a Medicare guide.
I say “seemingly unrelated” because there is a common thread that links each phenomenon.
So there he was, motivational speaker and former high school basketball coach Ken Carter (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in the movie “Coach Carter”), giving the keynote speech for the American Association of School Librarians conference. My wife’s a school librarian, and my daughter and I get to tag along to library conferences with her.
Carter praised the assembled librarians, hailing them as critical gatekeepers providing access to information that students need to succeed academically. In one exhibit area, posters from various school libraries from around the country explained their efforts to improve media literacy, expand multicultural awareness and encourage reading in a videogame world.
Rewind to a few days earlier … several members of Waynepeace and Sullivan Peace and Justice gathered at the Wayne County Public Library to watch a DVD from the “Leave My Child Alone Coalition” ( www.leavemychildalone.org ). This group is trying to spread information about a regulation, tucked inside the No Child Left Behind Act, that requires school districts to hand over private contact information about their students to the Defense Department for recruitment purposes. It’s possible for parents to opt out and pull their children’s names from these releases, but no one, of course, is required to give the parents the information they need to do that. To their credit, we learned that Honesdale High School did issue release forms to students and that the Western Wayne School District only gives out the information when expressly authorized by parents to do so.
A woman from Sullivan County shared a bunch of welcome information that she had gathered from military draft counseling training in New Paltz, and we learned that another set of trainings would be held in Susquehanna County in November. If you’re interested, contact me at email@example.com and I’ll forward you the information.
There’s a lot of information that young people of draftable age need to hear and start taking action on now regarding the Selective Service System and gaining “conscientious objector” status, and unfortunately a lot of misinformation is being used by military recruiters to reach their quotas. (See www.objector.org and www.nisbco.org )
Back to Pittsburgh, where I took my daughter to the Carnegie Science Center for the afternoon. We happened to walk into a special annual event called the SciTech Festival ( www.scitechfestival.com ), where Pittsburgh-area organizations presented exhibits about the uses of science and technology.
A group from Carnegie-Mellon called TechBridgeWorld ( www.techbridgeworld.org ) was demonstrating ways that information technology could be used to assist developing countries. One of these was a program called Real Lives ( www.educationalsimulations.com/products.html ). This uses worldwide statistical information to create fictional simulations that give users a very visceral feel for the lives of people in other countries. A free trial version can be downloaded at the website.
My daughter became a girl in a peasant village in Venezuela and followed her through the first 18 years of her life, through schooling, a bout of ringworm, a frustrating job search, and a short romance with a teenaged soldier! Nearby, another child was following a life in rural China, and after she’d picked “Social Activism” as one of her character’s leisure activities, that character started getting arrested on a fairly regular basis and tortured to yield information about her friends. (If she refused to snitch, she gained points in the Conscience category.)
As we were driving to Pittsburgh, we heard a story on National Public Radio concerning a mistake in the Medicare handbook that is soon to be released. The mistake might lead poorer subscribers to think they can choose certain prescription drug plans without being charged premiums—a mistake that could cost them a lot of money. The government, for its part, does not plan to mail out a correction to the information, though the right information will be available on the Medicare website.
You’ve figured it out by now. Information, and the battle to restrict or gain access to it, is the thread that links all this stuff. The White House strives to control information about its Supreme Court nominees, or civilian casualties in Iraq, or where the Katrina recovery money is going, as we ordinary citizens struggle to distinguish truth from fiction in the news. It’s harder than ever now to tell when we’re being informed and when we’re just being deceived or manipulated.
“Information is power,” the librarians say, and now we have no excuses for remaining powerless.
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