The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof ignited a firestorm of debate recently when he argued in his Feb. 15 column “Professors, We Need You!” that the publish-or-perish tenure process has worked to wall off much of higher education from the real issues of the day.
We can’t speak for the rest of higher education, but we can make the strong case that one facet of higher education, Cooperative Extension, effectively inoculated itself against this kind of irrelevancy a century ago.
Improvising a Professional Standard
It was a hard-fought struggle. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established a nationwide Cooperative Extension program in name but not in substance. Young people enlisted in the growing ranks of Extension educators were faced with a host of challenges in the years following passage of this legislation. None of them was provided with a how-to manual. They were being challenged to invent a professional standard literally as they went along.
The times called on them to improvise. And sometimes, this improvisation took place under exceptionally grueling circumstances.
Their traveling days were often spent slogging down muddy roads on horses or in carriages — long days that often ended in overnight stays at the home of the last farmer they had visited.
Tuskegee Institute’s Thomas Campbell, the nation’s first Cooperative Extension agent, recalls how he was often kept awake during many of these overnight visits by voracious bedbugs.
Amid all these daily challenges, Campbell and other pioneering Extension educators developed a set of professional standards that have been passed from one generation of educators to the next.
To be sure, many of these young professionals were exceptionally well-educated for their era. They possessed 4-year college degrees — a rare thing in the early 20th century — but these credentials, impressive as they were at the time, were not enough to ensure the respect of those they served.
These educators learned through experience that this respect had to be earned through the forging of close working relationships with farmers and, as Extension programming expanded over time, with their spouses and children.
The day-to-day challenges of Extension work also drove home another valuable lesson to these early educators: that Extension programming must always be results-driven — closely tied with securing tangible, positive changes on behalf of clients.
In the years following passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, three attributes of Cooperative Extension work emerged — three key characteristic that comprise the foundation of our mission: a strong commitment to research-based knowledge as the basis of our educational outreach; a strong emphasis on building positive working relationships with those we serve; and an unwavering commitment to providing relevant programs, namely programs designed to meet the practical needs of our diverse audiences where they live and work.
The Basis for an All-Consuming Passion
These three values secured Extension educators a basis on which to provide people from diverse backgrounds with the working knowledge they needed to make lasting, meaningful changes in all aspects of their lives.
People ask why so many Cooperative Extension educators develop such an all-consuming passion for their work. These three characteristics account for much of this passion.
The demands of this increasingly interconnected, global information economy are calling on the current generation of Extension educators to reassess the way our products are deliver to clients. We are being challenged to deliver the bulk of products through digital means. But even as we reassess and expand our delivery methods, the three key attributes of Extension — research-based, relevant and relationship-driven programming — will remain just as integral and vital to our mission.
They account for our uniqueness and our enduring relevancy.