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Current Forces Affecting Liberatory Education Futures

The three major disruptions that are shaping present realities and future possibilities will set the broad parameters in which possibilities for liberatory education unfold. These disruptions are accelerating technology, the climate crisis and the decline of functioning democracies around the world.

In addition, the possibilities for liberatory education will be influenced by several current forces in motion: entrenched poverty, structural mortality, an attention economy, new K-12 educational models, postsecondary alternatives and demographic plurality. These forces will interact with one another and with the critical uncertainties to continue shaping the landscape in which all of education operates. They will also present specific opportunities and challenges for liberatory education.

Entrenched Poverty

Increasing automation of the employment sector (Mueller, 2021), combined with an overreliance on relationships above merit in hiring (Alhanati, 2020), are excluding more and more people from finding meaningful, well-paid, long-term work (Fuller, Raman, Sage-Gavin, & Hines, 2021). Along with the spread of project-based, contingent and gig-based work, this trend could create growth in low-paying jobs (Rosenbaum, 2021). It is likely to entrench working poverty, compounding wealth gaps and setting up people for little chance of economic mobility (Rosenbaum, 2021). These employment impacts will be most widely experienced among communities of color and others from historically marginalized yet resilient backgrounds. They may be countered by recent pressure on the job market, which has been giving employees leverage to demand better salaries, benefits and working conditions (Baker, 2021).

Structural Mortality

Despite medical advances in treating diseases such as cancer and increased spending on healthcare, the U.S. has been experiencing a decline in longevity since 2014 (Harmon, 2021). This reversal in life expectancy has been caused primarily by an increase in mortality among the working-age population, low-income groups and Black and Native Americans. This increase in mortality is the result of siloed policies that have failed to address structural inequities, including lack of access to healthcare, food deserts, working poverty, unemployment and housing insecurity, and the ways in which these inequities lead to diseases of despair, such as hopelessness, depression, drug abuse and alcoholism (The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2021). Left unchecked, this trajectory of declining health will continue to reduce affected populations’ chances of benefiting from economic and educational opportunities. Social policies such as universal cash assistance for families with children (Aizer, Eli, Ferrie, & Lleras-Muney, 2016), less rigid sentencing laws and more stringent environmental protections have been showing positive impacts on longevity (Karas Montez & Farina, 2021), but they have not yet gone far enough in addressing the social determinants of health (Scott, 2021).

An Attention Economy

Driven largely by profit models that prize eyes on screens rather than quality time spent on a platform, the social media industry’s structure and business models have contributed to a fragmented civic sphere and low trust in institutions (Berkowitz, 2020). The competition for attention in a world of abundant information has resulted in polarized communication bubbles that resist rational, fact-based exchange (Seger, 2021). Without intervention, including purposeful cultivation of digital media literacy and critical thinking, the resulting narrowing of attention spans and decline in meaningful civic discourse are likely to continue. New social media platforms and operating models are being developed to help break down filter bubbles and make use of new measures of quality (Brown, 2021).

New K-12 Educational Models

Educational approaches and formats for teaching and learning have been diversifying over the past few decades and will continue to do so (Knowledge for policy, n.d.). While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of remote and hybrid learning (St. George, Strauss, Meckler, Heim, & Natanson, 2021), other innovative approaches to teaching and learning had already been taking hold. These approaches include personalized, competency-based learning; project-based learning; restorative practices; and anti-oppressive pedagogies. Strategies that emerged in response to the pandemic have the potential to open people’s minds to possibilities for more diverse and locally responsive approaches to education, if they challenge worldviews that privilege some people and harm others. Alternatively, some people might feel inclined to “return to normal” to minimize the uncertainty related to the pandemic, and others might reject innovative approaches because they are associated with difficult times.

Postsecondary Alternatives

After a decades-long reduction in state and Federal funding for postsecondary education, deregulation and inflationary forces (Mitchell, Leachman, & Saenz, 2019) have driven student debt to $1.6 trillion dollars (Johnson Hess, 2020), and many graduates are having difficulty finding meaningful work and job stability (Quillen, 2021). Additionally, resource hoarding by higher education institutions has been further exacerbating resource gaps (Matthews, 2013). As these developments deepen questions about the value of postsecondary education (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2021), new forms of postsecondary credentialing and certification will continue to present relatively affordable alternatives to the traditional four-year college experience (Soto, 2021). Renewed interest in and esteem for career and technical education (Brunner, Dougherty, & Ross, 2019), the growing recognition of community college’s value (Simama, 2020) and pressure from the employment sector will also influence the postsecondary landscape (Collins, 2021). The perceived value of new offerings, along with their degree of acceptance by employers, will shape employment pathways and who has access to them.

Demographic Plurality

The population of the U.S. is shifting such that, by 2045, no single racial or ethnic group will constitute a majority (Hatzipanagos, 2021). Already, most children in the country are people of color (Frey, 2019), and the percentage of people who identify as multiracial has outpaced the growth rates of Black, Asian and Hispanic populations that are driven by births and immigration (The Economist, 2021). These population shifts are diversifying the ways in which individuals and communities self-identify and express affinity to others (Woodie, 2021). They are also broadening the range of lived experiences and knowledge present in schools (Digital Promise Global, 2016), which could challenge education’s White-dominant cultures and power structures. However, ongoing processes of cultural assimilation (Lopez, Gonzalez-Barrera, & López, 2017) might end up reproducing old power structures under a new set of identities.

Up Next:

Chapter 3: Imagining Futures for Liberatory Education

Four stories about possible futures can help us imagine what liberatory education could look like

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