Lessons from McNamara

Dr. Ron Smith, a long-tenured Extension entomologist whom I’ve always held in the highest personal and professional regard, once related to me that truly exceptional Extension work is grounded on a highly refined sense of intuition gained through years of outreach experience. 

By intuition, he was referring to the deep well of understanding and empathy that develops between clients and their educators over years, if not decades, of close association — an insight that often equips the educator with a unique, if not uncanny, ability to articulate their clients’ problems even before they are aware they exist.

And it is this — far more than any other attribute associated with Extension work — that not only defines our mission but also distinguishes us from many of our counterparts in the more formal areas of  academia. 

But the operative phrase here is “long years of experience.”  This sort of understanding doesn’t happen overnight.

I gained an even deeper appreciation for Ron’s insights after reading Marc Ambinder’s reflections on the life of McNamara in “The Atlantic Monthly.”

Ambinder observes — rightly, I think —that McNamara’s fatal mistake was in assuming that “one smart person with a vision can see what thousands of others with experience cannot.”

“We live in an era where another band of credentialed experts promise answers to many profoundly complex questions,” he writes.

McNamara was the protagonist in one of the most tragic sagas in U.S. history — a credentialed expert leading a legion of similarly “credentialed and jargon-y” mandarins afflicted by the same fatal conceit.

He readily embraced the Vietnam War as his own and was fully prepared to bring all the forces of American technology and logic to bear on what became, with each daily body count, the most intractable challenge in U.S. military history.  But in formulating this vast and and complicated equation, he ignored the most important factor of all: the human element, namely, the grim and dogged resolve of the enemy.

Yes, there is a place for credentialed experts. Our serried ranks are full of them. But while we Extension educators have been guilty of one or two visionary lapses over the last century, we’ve never minimized the most important factor: the human element, namely the value of insight gained through the close and reciprocal relationships forged with our clients, sometimes lasting for years, if not decades.

As credentialed experts, we’ve have always valued reason, but we have always balanced this with a healthy appreciation for its limits. We have never ignored the human element.

And as we face the most monumental challenges in our history, it behooves all of us to stop for a moment and reflect on what we do right.

Surely, this is one of the things we do right.

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