4-H as Seed Corn

4-H'ers raising flag at the Alabama 4-H Youth Development Center, Coumbiana, Alabama

Following is a significantly revised rework of a piece I uploaded a couple of weeks ago about 4-H serving as vital seed corn for the future.

If you happen to be an Extension educator, please feel free to copy and use the material freely in newspaper columns, social media outreach and other measures aimed at heightening public awareness of the value of Extension programming.

Seed Corn for the Future

Folklore abounds with accounts of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times, with predictably disastrous results.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks observed recently, this era of budget cutting appears to be one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: young people.

“In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries,” Brooks writes. “In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.”

Add 4-H to that list. For more than a century, 4-H has fostered skills that not only keep kids in school but also busily and happily engaged in learning.

In response to impending and especially stringent federal budget cuts, Cooperative Extension professionals all over the country have been relating some of the tangible ways 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on kids staying in school, going to college and pursuing lifetime passions acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

Yes, 4-H offers immense opportunities for enriching the learning experience at a critical juncture in this nation’s history.

In an earlier column, Brooks stressed how much the success of this nation in the 21st century will be determined by how closely it hews to the traits that have long distinguished it: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only a few.

Likewise, the longstanding American reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which vaulted this country to the forefront of scientific and technological leadership in the 20th century appears to be steadily eroding.

As Brooks observed in an earlier column, Americans have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

What youth organization is better equipped than 4-H to provide young people with a renewed appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

4-H arguably has another critical role to fill: putting young people squarely on the path toward acquiring the levels of immersion in learning and related skills considered crucial for high achievement in life — what social critic Malcolm Gladwell has described as the 10,000 hour rule.

“If we’re trapped within the walls of a learning environment, reading, writing and arithmetic don’t spawn the creativity to go out and do great things,” says Wes Laird, an Opp, Ala. attorney and 4-H alumnus who has spent his legal career defending the economically disadvantaged.

Laird lauds his 4-H involvement as his social networking experience that enabled him to see beyond his rural Alabama hometown to the larger world beyond.

“Extracurricular activities that lie beyond classroom walls and that allow freedom of mind are crucial for excelling in any field,” Laird says.

In fact, research has confirmed that outstanding creators and innovators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours — roughly 10 years — learning and perfecting their skills.

This insight speaks volumes about the sort of role informal, unstructured learning activities serve in putting kids squarely on the road to lifetime success.  It also underscores why so-called frivolous school activities such as art, music, cheerleading —and, yes, 4-H — should be valued for what they are: critical pathways to lifetime self-mastery and achievement.

Let’s not allow these valuable lessons to be lost on our policy makers, those who are threatening to consume all of our seed corn.

4-H is seed corn for the most critical crop of all: young people.

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