Who Says 4-H is Passe?

Maybe it’s a middle-aged thing, but as I age I spend more time reflecting on the people, things and events throughout my life that not only made me happy but that also have contributed to the person I’ve become.

Many of the deepest insights I’ve gained over the last quarter century have been through close association with other Cooperative Extension professionals, such as Dr. Ned Browning.

Ned regrettably left Alabama to take an administrative post at another state Extension headquarters while I was still a comparative greenhorn.

But he left a lasting impression. Aside from being a well-integrated person psychologically, he evinced a deep familiarity with many practical things —one that complemented the more abstract, academic knowledge he had acquired in the course of completing his doctoral work.

Over time, though, I learned that this ability to integrate practical with more abstract forms of knowledge seamlessly and in ways that benefitted people was one of the hallmarks of the Extension educator — working knowledge as I’ve come to call it.

A lot of Ned’s insights into balancing the practical with the more theoretical was acquired from the countless hours spent preparing for and competing in countless 4-H science demonstrations.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best seller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell makes a point that is often lost in this meritocratic, SAT-obsessed society: Smartness is only one component of success.  With it come important but far less tangible factors.

He cites Bill Gates as a shining example.  No doubt about it, Gates is one extremely smart cookie.  But in addition to smartness, he also secured another distinct advantage — as it turns out, one crucial advantage — that put him head and shoulders above many other smart contemporaries: immersion in what would become his lifetime passion and calling.

Way back in 1969, Gates became only one of a handful of grade-schoolers who got to do real-time programming on a main-frame computer located in the Seattle, WA, area where he lived.  The thousands of hours he logged over the next 7 years provided him with an intimate knowledge of programming that only a paltry few of his contemporaries managed to acquire.

In addition to putting him light years ahead of virtually every other kid on the planet harboring similar interests in computers, it also equipped him with incomparable advantages years later when he decided to drop out of Harvard and try his luck with software design.

Yes, luck certainly played a part in Gates’s subsequent success.  He was fortunate to have been born to wealthy, educated parents who helped foot some of the costs of these early endeavors.  Likewise, he was spent his childhood in a region of the country where cutting-edge computer research was taking place.

But it was the perspective he gained from deep immersion in real-time processing that put him head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries.

Consider for a moment the immense potential that is lost year after year, simply because children with similar abilities and passions are not afforded opportunities for immersion along with the deep insights this type of experience typically affords.

And that brings me back to 4-H.

We hear talk of youth development groups such as 4-H becoming passé.   Quite the contrary: Grassroots youth programs have a unique potential to provide children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with opportunities that will secure lifetime success and, in rare cases, achievements on par with those of Bill Gates.

And considering the quantum scientific and technological advances that followed his immersion experience, aren’t these investments worth the cost?

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