Building a Cadre of Cooperative Extension Public Intellectuals

Rodin's ThinkerTime after time as I was growing up, my mother would remind me of the old maxim “actions speak louder than words.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing about the paramount need to produce a cadre of Extension public intellectuals.  Recently, I’ve felt the urge to follow my mom’s old maxim and back up those words with action.

I and a couple of colleagues put the final touches a draft proposal to develop a nationwide training effort with the goal of producing a cadre of Cooperative Extension public intellectuals.

Yes, I know: Public Intellectual is a highfalutin’ term. Even so, I think an understanding of public intellectuals and the role that they necessarily must serve in our own ranks is critical to our future.

Public intellectuals are essentially defined as the thinkers, usually journalists and academics, who not only articulate but also offer constructive solutions to the most pressing public policy issues of the day.

Two critical concerns inspired this proposal: first, the fact that Extension’s longstanding role as a scientific vanguard is under serious threat.

One example of how this threat is played out is the growing disdain, especially among many of this nation’s public intellectual class, for what has historically been known as scientific farming practices.

A fight is ensuing between those who believe that scientific farming techniques present a dire threat to the environment and those who, despite a few misgivings about current practices, are nonetheless convinced that scientific farming methods will continue to secure for us what they have in the past: a sufficient, highly diverse and cost-effective food supply.

Most of us associated with agricultural outreach understand the acute suffering that would accompany a wholesale abandonment of scientific farming methods.  The problem is that legions of ordinary Americans do not.

Without a doubt, the farming model that emerges within the next few decades will be a hybridized one, incorporating elements of the older model as well as many characteristics of a more sustainable model, though scientific farming practices will comprise the cornerstone of this new model.

Ordinary Americans need to understand this.  Moreover, they need to know the high stakes associated with these issues.  That is why I believe the times are crying out for a cadre of Extension public intellectuals: educators with the requisite training and communicative skills to put such complex issues into perspective on behalf of rank-and-file Americans.

Cooperative Extension’s history has uniquely equipped us for such a role. We have built an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, not only showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use but also building consensus for change.

As I see it, though, this longstanding vanguard role has not been developed to its fullest potential — the second reason behind this proposal.  While we have been highly effective players at the grassroots throughout much of our 100-year history, we have not carried over this success to national levels of discourse.  Simply put, we have not been as successful engaging this nation’s leading public intellectuals at major daily newspapers and networks and, more recently, influential social media venues.

We need to begin cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We must train a new national cadre of Extension educators to become spokespersons in the fullest measure of this term — people fully equipped to capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about food-and-fiber issues and other highly complex, largely misunderstood issues — public intellectuals.

This cadre of spokesperson must be trained to become effective social media users, skilled op-ed writers and highly effective and compelling speakers — simply put, a vanguard of educators fully equipped to engage other intellectuals at the levels of discourse and to provide insights in deeply enriched contexts.

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