It’s always darkest before the dawn…


Let’s leave 2017 behind with a sense of hope.

Words by Beth R. Holland

I’ve heard that a lot lately; and looking back on the past twelve months, 2017 may stand out as one of the darker years in history. Like most Americans, I believe that this has been a year of anger and outrage stoked by fear… Don’t stop reading here. This is a long article but neither a rant nor a diatribe… After a year of seeming irrationality, malice, and discontent, I want to leave 2017 with rational explanation and a sense of hope.

To avoid diving too far into politics, and to boost the likelihood that anyone might continue reading, let’s use Star Wars as an analogy. Every episode of Star Wars – both from the original trilogy and the prequel/sequels – boils down to the idea of overcoming fear. The hero — whether Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Rey (the new Jedi in the latest movies), or even Anakin Skywalker (before he became Darth Vader) — overcomes fear to become a hero. Sometimes, the fear appears in a rational form: a scary monster with big teeth or a stumble over a precipice. Other times, fear emerges in response to changing power dynamics that threaten the core of the heroes’ identity. In these instances, fear seems less rational but all the more important to understand.

For the moment, forget about the scary monsters and deep crevasses. Those are easy fears to conquer because they can be readily identified. Instead, I want to look at the more irrational fears, the ones associated with identity crisis and perceived loss of power. Luke feared Darth Vader not for the scary helmet but for the darkness that he represented. In the new movies, the Jedi Council (episodes 1-3) and Resistance (episodes 7 & 8) feared the dark institutions that threatened their freedom. Rey, the new hero in the latest movies, feared the reality of her own identity.

Though these fears might not be tangible or rational, they all connect to loss of power and identity as a result of macro forces. Back here on planet earth, instead of the Dark Force, we have a different institutional threat: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

According to the World Economic Forum, the First revolution used water and steam to introduce machines into the labor market. The Second leveraged electricity to power mass production. In the Third, computers brought information technology and digitization to automate production and open communication via networks. However, this Fourth Industrial Revolution extends the digital revolution and marks the fusion of the digital, physical, and biological worlds. It brings the potential for mass globalization, mass innovation, and also mass unemployment.

Economists predict that future decades will witness the evaporation of jobs to Artificial Intelligence, robots, automation, and offshoring1. This threat of mass unemployment has resulted in the rise of nationalism and populism in industrial nations as workers fear continued job loss and thus a loss of power and identity. A recent article from the World Economic Forum discussed national perceptions of globalization. Emerging markets such as Vietnam and India view globalization more favorably as they stand to reap the greatest benefits. Conversely, established economic powerhouses, especially the United States, hold a less positive view.

Beyond potential economic loss, the technological advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution threaten the social identities of individuals who do not consider themselves Digital Natives. Though researchers have empirically debunked Prensky’s (2001) conception of a digital generation, the notion has divided the population into those who do and do not embrace this new technological world. As individuals in society become increasingly connected, those who feel on the fringes of this revolution may experience cognitive dissonance and resist learning new skills, strategies, and technologies2. Despite desires for assimilation and participation in society, they resist change as a form of psychological protection against new views that may conflict with their previously held beliefs3. The fear associated with a loss of power and control to technology has resulted in calls for bans of devices in schools, and even work settings, as well as an epic blame-game against smartphones, tablets, laptops, and social media.

The technologies and advances associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution imperil the identities of the institutions who secured their power during a previous era. From the rise of white nationalism and isolationism, to the rollbacks of environmental policy and attacks on national monuments, to the promises to bring back manufacturing and mining, the United States has witnessed power struggles in response to the irrational fear of globalization and the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

In my own research, I have observed this resistance within the education sector. As explained by Collins and Halverson (2010), digital tools fundamentally threaten the systems and structures on which schools and educators base their identities. From K-12 to higher education, learning is no longer confined to the walls of a classroom or lecture hall. Given the abundance of information available on mobile devices, teachers and professors no longer exist as the single expert in a room. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the world no longer values what you know or can recall when phones more efficiently retrieve basic facts. As explained by professor Tony Wagner, the world no longer values what you know, but what you can DO with what you know.

And yet, despite this new reality, education remains entrenched in its traditional institutional state, resisting change as a form of self-preservation. Historically, education has been viewed as the solution to the country’s economic problems. However, instead of rising to the challenge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, education remains entrenched in its own identity crisis.

It’s always darkest before the dawn…

Recently, a professor commented to me that no one has yet crafted a narrative for globalization that does not stoke fear. The Fourth Industrial Revolution holds a promise to build a more connected, more humane society. By opening up the world to every person regardless of geography, socio economics, or nationality through ubiquitous networks, the world could not only see the next Einstein, Katherine Johnson, Mother Teresa, Mozart, Steve Jobs, Georgia O’Keeffe, Isaac Newton, or Dr. Patricia Bath, but an entire generation working as a collective to solve the global challenges of poverty, disease, famine, and the environment.

A recent report from the World Inequality Lab projected a pathway to close the income gap in the world and potentially eradicate poverty. Researchers in alternative energy, genetics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, and big data could uncover solutions to the health and environmental concerns plaguing the planet. All of this, though remains contingent on preparing citizens not only for the economy but also a global society. As educational psychologist John Dewey wrote in 1916, as technology ushers in increasing complexity, education should prepare students not for learning in school but learning in life.

In many ways, writing this article feels like a desperate plea to allies who might never respond. If you’ve seen Star Wars, I’m bringing this analogy to a close. If you have not yet seen the latest movie, I am about to give away parts of the ending… Anyways, at a time of darkness, when no dawn seemed possible, the last members of the Rebellion desperately needed a glimmer of hope – a last Jedi.

At least within the education space, those Jedis exist in schools and districts around the world. Exemplary teachers reject the status quo, empower their students as innovators and entrepreneurs, and inspire deep empathy and understanding so that their students meaningfully contribute to their community. Through introspection and the development of a new identity for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they offer a model for how we can all create new opportunities – and a new identity – within a global society.

Years ago, on a boat delivery, I stood the last watch. As the stars faded, I found myself navigating by nothing more than the compass light. This darkness could have created a sense of uncertainty or fear, but instead I remember anticipation. It’s always darkest before the dawn… Let’s just hope the sun rises in 2018.

1 Frey & Osborn (2013) build on the economic models of Autor, Levy, & Murnane (2003) to predict a hollowing out of the workforce due to advances in technology. Jobs that rely on routine cognitive and routine manual tasks will increasingly be automated.

2 According to Alexander, Schallert, & Reynolds (2009), learning can be resisted when it may conflict with previously held beliefs.

3 Sue & Sue (2013) describe this phenomenon in their Racial/Cultural Identity Development (R/CID) Model. Though members of a minority culture may desire assimilation into mainstream society, they might first reject dominant views until they develop the security to find balance between diverse cultures.

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