Wanted: A John Wesley Legion for Cooperative Extension

John Wesley, Anglican Innovator, Founder of Methodism

John Wesley, Anglican Innovator, Methodist Founder

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Methodist history grasps one of the great ironies of that movement: that it started out not so much a movement of its own but as an attempt to reform the Church of England — namely, to make it relevant to working-class English men and women coping with the effects of industrialization and struggling to understand their place in it.

As a matter of fact, to this Methodist, the Wesleyan movement has always borne a remarkable resemblance to our movement.  After all, what was the purpose of land-grant institutions and the Cooperative Extension undertaking that followed other than an attempt to equip farmers and working-class men and women with the mental resources and skills to weather the effects of industrialization occurring around them?

I’ll even take this comparison one step further: Much as 18th century Anglicanism was in need of a makeover, so is 21st century Cooperative Extension.  Yes, we need not one John Wesley but a legion of them: men and women who can help transform our movement into the relevant, post-industrial knowledge organization that it must become.

What exactly would such a transformation entail? For a quick overview, I heartily recommend David Brooks’s latest column: “The Crossroads Nation.”

Just as agriculture was the major activity a half millennium ago and industrial production was the preoccupation of the last century, “innovation and creativity will be the engines of economic growth” in the 21st century, he contends.

The most successful societies of the world — and Brooks is fully confident that the United States, despite its current challenges, will remain the world’s most successful society — will provide aspiring innovators with the social context they require to realize their fullest potential.

This kind of achievement doesn’t occur within a vacuum — some solitary genius laboring alone in a laboratory or library.  There will be a measure of that, yes.  But social collaboration — networks — will comprise the most essential component. As Brooks stresses, creators and innovators will require teamwork every bit as much as solitary inspiration and discovery.

“The main point in this composite story is that creativity is not a solitary process,” Brooks writes. “It happens within networks. It happens when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.”

People ask me why I, a confirmed pessimist, continue to express unbounded optimism about Cooperative Extension despite the seemingly endless budget cuts, downsizing and demoralization that inevitably follows. 

There is one reason: I am fully convinced that our history — our longstanding acquaintance with collaborative knowledge — fully and uniquely equips us to capitalize on what is occurring all around us.

We Cooperative Extension professionals are fortunate to work in the nation that Brooks believes is still the best equipped to serve as the world’s creative hub. We Americans speak the global language, we remain a high-trust society, we’re a universal nation with contacts all over the world, and we still possess a high degree of social trust and openness — all prerequisites for the society that is emerging.

Likewise, we’re fortunate that the successful society that emerges in the 21st century will be ours, the one best equipped to provides hubs — junction points — for this immense global network. 

Yet, we have some immense advantages of our own: namely, an enormous potential to provide American society with a number of these critical junction points. 

Even so, fully seizing these opportunities will require an organizational makeover.

That is why we will need creators and innovators of our own — legions of them — people who can show us how we can draw on our historic strengths to complete our transformation into a fully networked knowledge organization, one that promotes both creativity and innovation.

We need a legion of John Wesleys.

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