Why Tech Can’t Replace Manufacturing

[Author’s Note: This is adapted from a tweetstorm I posted recently.]

Many people yearn for the return of American manufacturing. Other people correctly point out that manufacturing is never coming back. The latter argue that we need to focus on creating new jobs, new kinds of jobs, and they point to the modern tech industry for this.

But the tech industry isn’t a present-day equivalent of our bygone manufacturing economy. It can’t replace it.

Consider: In the ’50s, a man who never finished high school could get a job working a factory line, and that job paid enough for them to raise a family and own a home. Nothing much, no frills, but a decent quality of life. They could learn new skills on the job and advance to more skilled positions. They could have a career and retire in some comfort.

Name one job in today’s tech industry that you can get without a high school diploma. Name one tech job that you can get without a college degree.

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This Is Why I Love Libraries

In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)

And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.

Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.

All our stories.

I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.

Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.

Libraries Should Be About Books

It’s de rigueur nowadays for people to criticize libraries for being “too much about books.” The idea being that too many libraries are still stuck in the past, in outmoded service models, and failing to adapt to new technologies, trends, etc.

There is some truth in the criticism—although I also find that too many of these critics fail to be critical enough of new trends and tend too often to promote faddishness.

It makes me want to ask the obvious question:

What’s wrong with libraries being about books?

Books mean reading. Books are still the best, most valuable tool of a reading life. This makes books timelessly important—beyond fads, more enduring than ever-changing technology.

Books matter. Still and always. Because reading matters.

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Education in America: An Expanded Argument

I keep thinking about my latest posts on education and the need I see for a three-legged balance between STEM, liberal arts, and vocational training. It occurs to me that this is incomplete. There needs to be a fourth leg:

Arts education.

Music, visual arts, performing arts—these are different from liberal arts (philosophy, history, literature study, rhetoric, etc.), just as liberal arts are different from STEM. But just like liberal arts and STEM, arts education also seeks to develop critical thinking skills, along its own lines and according to its own standards.

When I critiqued the STEAM concept, I did so in terms of liberal arts but that’s incorrect. The “A” in STEAM stands for “Arts”—as in arts education, not liberal.

I think my critique still stands: integrating arts education with STEM is a mistake. I believe that conflating them makes it virtually impossible to avoid subordinating the arts aspect to the STEM aspect. They’re both best served when they’re allowed to stand on their own.

A four-legged educational system: STEM—Liberal arts—Arts—Vocational training.

That should be our goal.

STEAM

A couple of people responded to my previous post about education and the need for three pillars: liberal arts + STEM + vocational training. They point out that a movement exists to expand STEM to STEAM—to integrate arts education into STEM education.

I disagree with this idea. I’m convinced that liberal arts and STEM education need to be allowed to flourish each on their own and to interact with each other as equals. I feel that STEAM initiatives intrinsically subordinate the arts aspect to the larger STEM aspect.

But my concern about STEAM speaks to something deeper. At their cores, both liberal arts and STEM educations seek to teach strong critical thinking skills. They use very different methodologies to do so, and are based on different structures of reasoning, logic, discourse, etc.

I know many people for whom STEM education doesn’t work. Their minds simply don’t respond to that teaching methodology, to those structures of knowledge. Likewise, I know many people for whom liberal arts education doesn’t work and for the same reasons.

If the goal is to promote critical thinking skills, it’s obvious to me that we need to maintain multiple avenues for people to get there.

Intentionally conflating different educational methodologies and pathways is a mistake. Cramming them together narrows the options available for people to learn the critical thinking skills they need in ways that are best suited to them.

I believe that this can only reduce the efficacy of education overall.

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.

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Teaching Digital Literacy

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over these past few weeks thinking about digital literacy. I try to compare it to reading and language literacy.

The comparison is illustrative.

Consider language literacy:

  • It takes years to learn and master a language.
  • Immersion is universally recognized as the best way to learn a language.
  • The more words and phrases you’re exposed to, the more you’ll learn.
  • You have to start simple and work your way up to the complicated stuff over time.

Consider reading literacy:

  • It takes years to learn how to read.
  • Constant exposure to reading is the best way to learn—being read to, reading on your own.
  • The more you see other people in your daily life reading, the more likely you are to make reading a habit for yourself and the greater your comfort level with reading will be.
  • You have to start simple and work your way up to the complicated stuff over time.

“Years to learn,” “immersion,” “exposure,” “work your way up”—developing literacy is a long process that needs to be a part of your daily life. Literacy involves more than just the mechanical tasks of speaking and reading—it requires habit and a level of comfort.

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