Public Libraries: STEM, Maker Spaces & the State of Modern Education

Please read this article. He makes an important point. The headline, as always, is composed to be divisive—his argument is more nuanced than the headline lets on.

Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous by Fareed Zakaria (posted by The Washington Post on March 26, 2015)

Let me start with this: STEM education is important. Despite the headline, this article doesn’t try to argue that it isn’t important.

Looking back at the history of education in this country, it seems to me that we were at our best, our strongest and most successful, when we had a balance across three arenas of study: liberal arts + STEM + vocational training. We need all three, equally. Liberal arts, in particular, is what stood us apart from much of the rest of the world during the 20th century. We also had far-and-away the most robust and most affordable vocational training in the world during the middle section of the century.

Liberal arts tracks have been under attack for pretty much my entire life, and prior. Vocational training in this country has been utterly gutted over the past decades. STEM education is important but I also worry that we emphasize it at the expense of reestablishing this three-pillared balance.

In the 1980s and ’90s, I became aware that there was a concerted effort to reconceptualize the purpose of education away from any ideal of becoming learned in a well-rounded manner, and toward the belief that education mattered primarily insofar as how well it prepared you to get a job. Schools became more important for their role as economic engines than as educational institutions. Education became glorified job training.

I believe that this did great damage to us as a country and a culture.

My concern with our current emphasis on STEM education is that it merely serves to recreate the same problem, now that the jobs are in the tech sector. It still posits education as glorified job prep. There’s still no sense of the value of education for the sake of being educated. Liberal arts and vocational training still have little role to play in this STEM-based vision of education.

I don’t see how it will serve us any better this time around than the last.

Secondarily—I don’t think it serves STEM fields well not to surround and buttress their work with the other two pillars of a well-rounded educational system. Share the weight, share the responsibility, compliment each pillar’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, without overwhelming any one of them.

So what does all of this have to do with public libraries?

Public libraries across the country are making significant efforts to put STEM programs front-and-center in our service lineups. This is a good thing—STEM is important.

Public libraries have been experimenting with maker spaces for a few years now, doing a yeoman’s job of filling some portion of the void left behind by our absent vocational schools. This is a very good thing.

But I’m worried that we’re emphasizing these two pillars of education at the expense of the central role that public libraries have always fulfilled in upholding the ideal of general education. I believe that we need general, liberal arts education more now than ever before.

The last paragraph of Mr. Zakaria’s article in particular drives the point home for me:

One final reason to value a liberal education lies in its roots. For most of human history, all education was skills-based. Hunters, farmers and warriors taught their young to hunt, farm and fight. But about 2,500 years ago, that changed in Greece, which began to experiment with a new form of government: democracy. This innovation in government required an innovation in education. Basic skills for sustenance were no longer sufficient. Citizens also had to learn how to manage their own societies and practice self-government. They still do.

One of founding principles of public libraries in this country is to promote ongoing- and self-education for the maintenance of a well-informed democracy. Whatever our job markets do, however technology continues to develop—our democratic purpose will never cease to be important.

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