Monthly Archives: April 2011

Lessons from William and Kate

I’m an American.  Like many of my compatriots, I have a hard time grasping the appeal of the monarchy in this democratic, egalitarian age.

Nevertheless, desiring to spend some quality time with my daughters, I bounded out of bed this morning at 3 a.m. to watch the Royal wedding.

I ended up drawing some lessons from it — the wedding, that is — lessons for Cooperative Extension’s future.

To be sure, there are some interesting parallels between the British monarchy and Cooperative Extension.

The monarchy once wielded an immense amount of power and influence, much as we did within a different context.

Now it’s striving to adjust to a new era in which it commands considerably less power and influence.

To a significant degree, so are we.

The monarchy has been improvising furiously since at least the English Civil War.

They’ve improvised their way through all manner of social, cultural and political upheavals and through a series of murky, unwieldy institutional arrangements that would make an ordinary American’s head spin.

Despite it all, they have secured an enduring institutional presence throughout the world. The monarchy even managed to adapt to the decline of the British Empire by carving out new realms and new working relationships within the Commonwealth context that eventually emerged.

That’s part of the genius of the monarchy, I suppose, and that’s partly why I ended up drawing lessons and even a measure of inspiration from the wedding.

We are an old institution — granted, not as old as the British monarchy — that has been improvising its way through murky institutional arrangements for more than a century.

We started out a patchwork of outreach movements that was  cobbled together and joined with the nation’s land-grant universities.   Eventually, we evolved into one of the most successful outreach programs in history, one that ultimately formed an integral and vital component of the land-grant mission.

As it turned out, these murky institutional arrangements provided rather ideal conditions within which we could adapt and grow over time.

In a manner of speaking, we’ve constructed our own realms reaching from the grassroots all the way up to the national level.

Much like the 21st century monarchy, we are being called upon again to rethink our identity and our mission as we forge new partnerships within a radically altered context.

It’s also worth reflecting on how the wedding marks a significant departure from the past: the first union between a senior royal prince and a commoner in some 350 years. The sight of the young prince marrying an attractive, assertive, self-confident commoner has breathed new life into a millennium-old institution.

“The monarchy is back!” proclaimed one obviously delighted British-born CNN correspondent.

I hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, a journalist or columnist will offer a similar characterization of Cooperative Extension. That, of course, will depend on whether we learn to improvise — to blend old with new  — to build a 21st century outreach model that incorporates the very best elements of the model we constructed during the previous century.

That is the take-home message I carried away from this early morning event: that the times are  not only changing but are also calling on us to undertake a radical departure of our own — a radical departure from the way we currently view  the world and our place in it.

Will we summon the courage to undertake that departure?

Taller? Healthier? Thank an Extension Educator

Tuskegee Institute Movable SchoolI’ve spoken more than once in this forum about Uva Hester, a pioneering Extension public health educator of the early 20th century.

Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Hester, a Tuskegee Institute health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.

Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.

It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.

Hester, along with a team of poorly funded but determined Tuskegee Institute educators, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, vowed to do something about it.  Working with the state’s health department, Tuskegee educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, if not potentially deadly, conditions.

I was reminded of Hester today after reading a New York Times article attesting to the immense advances in human health and well-being that have occurred within the last few centuries.

The Times reports that for almost three decades, a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel has been diligently investigating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides in food production and human health and nutrition.  The results of this study have been compiled into a book titled “The Changing Human Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in May, 2011.

The researchers maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia” — as they stress, “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”

One of the nation’s leading demographers and sociologists, the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Preston, puts the issue into sharp perspective:  Without the advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.

The last 100 years of progress are due in no small measure to Uva Hester and the thousands of Extension public health educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved their lives but, in an immense number of cases, actually saved them.

The Tuskegee Institute Extension efforts are only one of many examples of Extension-sponsored efforts aimed at improving basic nutritional and health skills, especially among limited resource families.  For example, in the early 1960s, five rural Alabama counties served as pilot sites for what later became known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was developed to provide directed education to limited resource families to improve their eating habits and homemaking skills.  The program was eventually expanded to all 50 states.

The role that pioneering Extension nutritional and health educators have played in these advances, while impressive, should not detract from the equally critical contributions of Extension agricultural educators in helping the nation’s farmers secure one of the greatest technological achievements in human history: a comparatively cheap, diverse and abundant food supply.

As Fogel stresses, technological advances rescued farmers from the endless cycle of subsistence farming.  For example, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 hours during a five-and-a-half day week.  Farmers needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to grow more food without being stronger.

The improved yields secured by advanced scientific farming methods broke this cycle and changed the face of farming forever.

The strong Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.

Despite these immense strides, Extension educators still face a bevy of challenges.

Fogel concedes that when he first began his research, he never imagined that technological advances would lead to chronic problems of overnutrition, which have contributed to obesity and related chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer.

Extension nutrition and health educators increasingly are being called upon to demonstrate practical ways to avoid these conditions.

Meanwhile, Extension agricultural educators are gearing up to help farmers build a new farming model by mid-20th century that not only incorporates both scientific farming advances and sustainable practices but  that is also equipped to feed some 9 billion people across the planet using less land, less water and less energy.