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?

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