Monthly Archives: October 2010

Advice to the President, Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Two points David Brooks raised today in discussing President Obama’s political prospects following the mid-term elections not only made a deep impression on me but also raise major implications for the future of the nation and of Cooperative Extension.

In terms of the President’s emphasis on cultural values, Brooks offered this advice:

Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

From a public policy standpoint, he says the President will also have to stress the importance of restructuring in an era when growing numbers of Americans fear that the nation’s best years are behind it.

Companies like Ford cut wasteful spending while doubling down on productive investment. That’s exactly what the nation has to do over all. There have to be cuts, the president could say, in unaffordable pension commitments, in biofuel subsidies and useless tax breaks. But there also have to be investments in things that will produce a vibrant economy for our children: a simpler tax system with lower rates on investment; more scientific research; a giant effort to improve Hispanic graduation rates; medical courts to rationalize the malpractice system and so on.

It’s neither my intention to praise nor blame President Obama.  My priority as blogger is to identify current issues that have direct bearing on the movement I’ve come to love and cherish: Cooperative Extension.  And these two points have a direct bearing on Extension.

The cultural values of self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility have been critical to this nation’s long-term success.  4-H has played an indispensable role in propagating and instilling these values in five generations of American youth.

To put it another way, I believe that 4-H’s longstanding role — instilling young people with the skills they need to function in the real world — remains more than simply a quaint holdover from earlier decades.  This historical role remains no less critical — critical to the long-term survival of our society.  4-H educators and volunteers should make no bones about this fact.  They should proclaim it loudly, unapologetically and proudly.

Brooks’s second point about productive investment must also be taken to heart.  In historical terms, Cooperative Extension is one of this country’s most significant productive investments.  The role it served in rendering farming more efficient contributed directly to this nation’s reaching the pinnacle of world agricultural and industrial leadership in the 20th century.

Despite all this talk of Extension’s best years being behind us, we still have an essential niche to fill in terms of productive investment.

One of the greatest challenges this nation will face with the next few years is balancing sustainable practices with farm profitability and efficiency. If you doubt that, consider this quote from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by a huge increase in fertilizer use in Africa, the adoption of drip irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chickens and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep  (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between) — and a great deal of trade, not just because the mouths and the plants will not be in se same place, but also because trade encourages specialization in the best-yielding crops for any particular district.

Needless to say, the need for a “great deal of trade” inevitably will be accompanied by a great need for agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, animal scientists and agricultural economists — experts who are not only fully engaged in classrooms and laboratories but also in face-to-face interactions with producers who will  comprise the vanguard of this new green revolution.

Back to Brooks’s phrase: productive investment.  The demands of mid-century agriculture will require a colossally large productive investment, not only in terms of research but also in active engagement with producers.

That’s one of the reasons why I believe Cooperative Extension’s best years are ahead of it rather than behind it: We will soon be called upon again to make an enormous productive investment in this nation’s and the world’s future.

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Wikifying Cooperative Extension Work

I don’t think there is anything associated with the Internet that impresses me more than Wikipedia — its sheer breadth and convenience and, most of all, the way it’s revolutionized how we collaborate as wired human beings.

I think it will be remembered centuries from now as one of the greatest achievements since the Gutenberg Press —  pardon the hyperbolic rhetoric, but I really mean that.

A couple of years ago the thought occurred to me: Why not wikify Cooperative Extension?

Yes, I know, this sounds more like a PR venture than an actual attempt to educate people through shared knowledge, which, of course, is the stated aim of Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia concept.

But I had a story to tell.  Alabama may figure as the 49th state on many lists, but in terms of its Extension legacy, it ranks near the top — replete with names such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Thomas M. Campbell, Luther Duncan and terms such as Jesup Wagons.

As I said, I had a story  to tell and to share — a very compelling one.

So whenever I could muster the time, I wrote — and wrote and wrote and wrote, as it turned out.

Actually, I first cut my Wikipedian teeth on a series of articles on my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Alabama, which has now grown to a cluster of articles.  (I’m proud to say that for a relatively small regional school, dear ol’ UNA’s  Wikipedia presence is now not too shabby one.)

Anyway, back to my Extension effort.  I started with a general article about the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, first outlining its mission and programs.  Over time, I’ve managed to grow it into a fully expanded article — one of the largest among Alabama articles — that also covers Alabama Extension’s impressive history beginning with Seaman Knapp’s initial efforts.

Also included are articles about three of our most noteworthy directors: Luther Duncan, P.O. Davis and E.T. York, though an article about York, who also served as a University of Florida interim president, already existed in “stubb” form.

The articles I’ve most enjoyed are the ones dealing with our history.  These include a lengthy piece on the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture, which was a series of WPA-funded murals commissioned by the then-Alabama Extension Service to highlight the progress of Alabama agriculture. 

In time I was able to include enough articles to build develop a Alabama Extension navigation bar, which, placed at the end of each article, allows easy navigation to related articles.

Granted, researching and writing these articles was time-consuming, but they have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  All of them have garnered respectable followings: The main article on Alabama Extension attracts roughly 500 to 600 hits a month.  The Historical Panorama piece and the accompanying article about the artist, John Augustus Walker, cumulatively garner about 300 to 400 hits each month. 

A couple of the articles on our Extension directors appear to generate roughly 250 hits a months.

These articles have paid off in so many ways, not only by educating thousands more people about Alabama Extension history but also by instilling our employees with a greater sense of organizational pride and esprit de corps.

One enterprising Extension county coordinator in northwest Alabama, Katernia Cole, used the material to organize a Luther Duncan Celebration for Alabama’s 4-H centennial.  As it turns out, Duncan, a national 4-H pioneer and a Alabama Extension director and Auburn University president, was a native of the town in which she works.

They’ve paid off in other ways too. The article on the Historical Panorama was part of the inspiration behind one Birmingham historian’s effort to sponsor a return of the murals to Birmingham for the first time in more than 70 years.

I am proud to be a Wikipedian, and, most of all, I’m proud to have found a way to use this remarkable medium to acquaint thousands of people around the world with the remarkable human achievement that is Cooperative Extension work.

Bellwether Race in a Bellwether Ag State

The Iowa secretary of agriculture race bears close watching by Cooperative Extension agricultural professionals who want to gain a clearer picture of how agricultural  policy will play out over the next few years.

Incumbent Bill Northey, a full-time commercial corn grower whom The Atlantic depicts as an “establishment candidate,” is running against Francis Thicke, an organic beef producer.

“For the food movement, [this race] is the most important this election,” says sustainability advocate and author Michael Pollan, who was quoted by The Atlantic.

In fact, Pollan and other sustainability proponents point to it as a bellwether for the rest of the nation.

Northey, who has received corporate support from Monsanto, Sygenta, DuPont and Wal-Mart, is a major proponent of exporting Iowa ag products.

Thicke, who holds a Ph.D in agronomy and is a vocal sustainability advocate,  has written a free, downloadable book on agriculture:  A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture.   Unlike Northey, Thicke wants to create a food processing infrastructure to ensure that more homegrown food stays in Iowa.

Following is the first segment of a debate between the two candidates held earlier this year.

Extension’s Future in an Age of Austerity

Speaking as an Extension professional, I think there are two ways of looking at the future, one deeply pessimistic, the other guardedly optimistic.

Rockwell's county agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Painting of a County Agent at Work

Despite my genetic propensity for pessimism, I remain optimistic, albeit guardedly.  Yes, we live in an age of fiscal austerity, and, yes, the way this austerity ultimately plays out raises several disturbing questions about the prospects for our long-term organizational survival.

Even so, as I’ve mentioned before, I think the sheer scope of austerity-related policies that emerge from congressional and state legislative wrangling over the next decade will only underscore the value of Cooperative Extension.

These austerity measures undoubtedly will exert an immense influence not only on the American economy but also on the U.S. political and public policy agendas.  Just how much was reflected in a recent New Republic column.

New Republic correspondent Thomas Edsall cites Congressional Budget Office estimates, which reveal that without major budgetary reform, debt is expected to triple by 2035, exceeding 135 percent of GDP.  As Edsall observes, the sheer magnitude of federal debt underscores the difficulties that we and future generations face.

If we were careful planners—and, of course, we’re not—we would begin by saving about 5 percent of GDP each year. Next year, for example, we’d have to make tax increases and spending cuts add up to about $700 billion. Over time, the total costs would prove immense: raising everyone’s tax bill by at least 25 percent (and probably a lot more than that) or eliminating about 20 percent of the federal budget (the approximate current size of Social Security, for example).

My personal impression: We Extension professionals will endure immense budgetary hardship over the next few years.  We won’t emerge from this unscathed.  But we WILL survive. 

Why? Because Cooperative Extension is far better equipped than other public entities to operate on the drastically altered public policy landscape that ultimately emerges.  

What will be the most important factor accounting for this survival? Our longstanding organizational emphasis on dialogue and empowerment as opposed to the top/down bureaucratic approach that once underscored public policy.

The public policy agenda that emerges from all this fiscal wrangling will place considerably greater emphasis on personal empowerment, namely on the role citizens must serve as active partners in social change and advancement.

That is why I think public policymakers at all levels of government ultimately will acquire a newfound appreciation for our unique assets.

Yes, there are some things we will have to do differently, and, yes, new technology, notably social media, will play an integral part in the leaner organizational structure that ultimately emerges. But the Cooperative Extension that emerges will be a considerably leaner organization better equipped to help Americans through the myriad challenges associated with this era of material limitations and reduced expectations.

We Need a Scientific Counterrevolution in the United States — and 4-H and FFA Should Lead the Way

I’ve stated more than once what I consider as one of the greatest long-term threats facing American prosperity:  The unwillingness of America’s most talented and educated young people to pursue the sorts of practical fields that propelled this country to the pinnacle of technological leadership in the 20th century.

In his most recent column, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman outlined how this practical knowledge deficit is seriously undermining our competitive standing among other advanced nations:

“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says [former MIT President Charles M.] Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.

I’ve outlined more than once in this forum the role that 4-H and FFA could play in helping spark a counterrevolution of practical scientific knowledge among many of this nation’s best and brightest.  No two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to help restore these values to a preeminent place in American life.

Are they listening?

The First Cooperative Extension Agent: A Celebration of All That Is Good in American Education

Thomas Monroe CampbellIf ever there was a testament to all that is good in American education, it was Thomas M. Campbell.

Like millions of black southerners only a generation removed from slavery, Campbell faced a bleak future eking out a living as a laborer in the foothills of northeastern Georgia.

He wanted something better in life. His brother was a student at a school in a faraway place with a strange name, Tuskegee, led by a man named Booker T. Washington.  As little as he knew about the place, he was certain of one thing: He wanted to be there — desperately.

He was determined to go to this school, even it meant walking all the way.  And walk he did — all the way to Tuskegee Institute and into the pages of history.

America’s First Cooperative Extension Agent

Campbell enrolled at the school.  And while he had a lot of academic catching up to do, his almost superhuman capacity and passion for hard work and self-improvement earned the respect and admiration of Washington.  Immediately after graduation, Washington entrusted him with a job — overseeing the “farmer’s college on wheels,” one of the first in a series of steps that culminated in what later became known Cooperative Extension work.

Campbell’s successful work with the farmer’s college led to his becoming the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent, winner of the Harmon Award, and one of the most distinguished Extension educators in U.S. history.

I’ve often reflected on how different Cooperative Extension would be today had there not been a Tuskegee Institute to tap into the extraordinary energy and genius of this man.

U.S. Higher Education’s Singular Achievement

More than one pundit has reflected on one of the singular achievements of U.S. higher education:  its longstanding emphasis on giving remedial and underachieving students a fighting chance to succeed in life.

The stream of greatness that has flowed through institutions such as Tuskegee University along with the vast network of U.S. land-grant institutions, regional colleges and universities and community colleges testify to the depth of this commitment.

I relate to this on an intimate level, because while I’m by no means great, I was, by every measure of the word, a classic underachiever.

Like so many underachievers, I had spent my high-school years focusing only on those books and activities that interested me — behavior reflected in my lopsided grades and ACT score.  My encounter with my local regional university transformed me into something approaching a serious scholar.

I refer to it as an encounter because it took hold of me and transformed me into the person I am today, much as Tuskegee Institute did Thomas Campbell.

A Scottish Lesson

I gained a deeper appreciation for this more recently reading the last chapter of Arthur Herman’s  “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”

Herman writes about how higher education in Scotland grew less egalitarian at roughly the same time that intellectual life in the region began to atrophy.  Even as this atrophy set in, Scottish universities, borrowing from their English counterparts, began imposing stricter admission standards.

“University students of thirteen or fourteen were now a thing of the past; the academic body more closely resembled that of other Western universities,” Herman writes.

No longer were 13- and 14-year-old students granted admission to these institutions, even though in earlier years a few teenage students had gone on to become distinguished, if not world-renowned, scholars.

Poor aspiring scholars had a harder time matriculating, too, trapped in what Herman describes as “the mesh of entrance exams.”

There are lessons here for America, a nation that seems more meritocratic — more SAT-obsessed — than ever.

Hasn’t there always been a place in this society for late-bloomers, underachievers and remedial students —  students who, for whatever reason, simply didn’t fit traditional molds?

Affirming a Legacy

This brings me back to one of the purposes of my weblog: to affirm the work and legacy of Cooperative Extension.

From the beginning, this informal educational movement has affirmed  the traditional value Americans have invested in nontraditional learning and, equally important, in ensuring that the fruits of learning are available to all.

The life of our first Cooperative Extension agent, Thomas M. Campbell, should serve as an enduring reminder that through exposure to the right person, experience or institution, even the poorest, the most disadvantaged, the most underachieving can soar to dizzying heights.

4-H and FFA: Vanguards of a Scientific Counterrevolution?

“If we don’t restore the manufacturing sector in this country, we’re scr*wed in the long run.”

Those were the blunt sentiments expressed last week by an industrial engineering professor and close friend summing up the future economic outlook of the United States barring a radical turnaround.

If any statement best underscores why I still believe passionately and unequivocally in the enduring value of 4-H and FFA, it’s is that one. 

Yes, I know that historically speaking these two youth organizations have been closely tied with agriculture rather than with the manufacturing base.  But their historical emphasis on practical knowledge and the critical thinking that accompanies it is the reason why I’m convinced these two organizations have an invaluable role play in the future as practical scientific vanguards.

Practical scientific vanguards? Yes, I know that sounds a little grandiose, if not slightly bizarre. But I’m serious. I believe our success as a nation depends on whether we reverse the trends that are moving us away from the traditional American emphasis on practical science and critical thinking.

Scottish Lessons

I was reminded of this yet again last week while finishing last chapter of Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book that chronicles the enormous Scottish contributions to modern thought and technological achievement.

Herman credits the Scots with fostering huge leaps in moral philosophy, history, economics and scientific and technological advances throughout the 18th century. Intellectual discussions throughout the civilized world were peppered with Scottish names such Hutcheson, Kames, Ferguson, Smith and Hume, Reid and Carlyle.

Medical training at Edinburgh University set the standard for the rest of the world, particularly the newly independent United States.  Similar standards were set in engineering, steelmaking, ship building, textiles and chemistry.

Yet, as the 19th century drew to a close, Scottish intellectual achievement began to wane.

Scotland’s brightest students abandoned Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen for Oxbridge.

By the close of the 19th century, Scottish businessmen, whose professional forebears had advanced printing and the book trade — not to mention renowned publications as the Edinburgh Literary Review — turned their energies to the tabloid press. 

Likewise, Scottish writers abandoned their interests in philosophy, political economy and history for escapist literature.

A growing Scottish preoccupation with conformity blocked innovation and creativity — a change that Herman ascribes to the disastrous results stemming from World War I battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, when Scottish generals, once vaunted for their independent-mindedness in addition to their courage and sense of honor, concentrated on means while losing sight of the ends.

A Lesson for Americans?

Could it be that American society is following the same course?  Is our longstanding reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which sparked similar scientific and technological advances throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, eroding?

The symptoms are all around us. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoaned the degree to which U.S. young people, especially elite college graduates, have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

“The shift is evident at all levels of society, “Brooks writes. “First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.”

Yet another observation that left a deep impression last week was expressed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former Texas A&M University president, who stressed that American society is more self-aware and self-critical than any other in history.

“That doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of geniuses,” Gates said. “It just means — due, in no small part to a free press — that we recognize our problems faster than anybody else and move to correct them faster.”

Back to my premise: 4-H and FFA and the need for nothing less than a practical scientific counterrevolution. What two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?