Tag Archives: 4-H

The “Lean Years:” A New Mission for Cooperative Extension?

A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension’s Marketing Team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.

The New York Times’s David Brooks’s most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named “The Lean Years.”

Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.

He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.

America’s young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn.  Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession:  College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods.  And this earnings gap persists for decades.  Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.

Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.

Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as “debilitating blows to their identity.”

Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.

The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives. 

As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.   

These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.

As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times.  The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.

Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment.  How?  By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years.  By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation’s vital, but frayed, social fabric.

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Who Says 4-H is Passe?

Maybe it’s a middle-aged thing, but as I age I spend more time reflecting on the people, things and events throughout my life that not only made me happy but that also have contributed to the person I’ve become.

Many of the deepest insights I’ve gained over the last quarter century have been through close association with other Cooperative Extension professionals, such as Dr. Ned Browning.

Ned regrettably left Alabama to take an administrative post at another state Extension headquarters while I was still a comparative greenhorn.

But he left a lasting impression. Aside from being a well-integrated person psychologically, he evinced a deep familiarity with many practical things —one that complemented the more abstract, academic knowledge he had acquired in the course of completing his doctoral work.

Over time, though, I learned that this ability to integrate practical with more abstract forms of knowledge seamlessly and in ways that benefitted people was one of the hallmarks of the Extension educator — working knowledge as I’ve come to call it.

A lot of Ned’s insights into balancing the practical with the more theoretical was acquired from the countless hours spent preparing for and competing in countless 4-H science demonstrations.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best seller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell makes a point that is often lost in this meritocratic, SAT-obsessed society: Smartness is only one component of success.  With it come important but far less tangible factors.

He cites Bill Gates as a shining example.  No doubt about it, Gates is one extremely smart cookie.  But in addition to smartness, he also secured another distinct advantage — as it turns out, one crucial advantage — that put him head and shoulders above many other smart contemporaries: immersion in what would become his lifetime passion and calling.

Way back in 1969, Gates became only one of a handful of grade-schoolers who got to do real-time programming on a main-frame computer located in the Seattle, WA, area where he lived.  The thousands of hours he logged over the next 7 years provided him with an intimate knowledge of programming that only a paltry few of his contemporaries managed to acquire.

In addition to putting him light years ahead of virtually every other kid on the planet harboring similar interests in computers, it also equipped him with incomparable advantages years later when he decided to drop out of Harvard and try his luck with software design.

Yes, luck certainly played a part in Gates’s subsequent success.  He was fortunate to have been born to wealthy, educated parents who helped foot some of the costs of these early endeavors.  Likewise, he was spent his childhood in a region of the country where cutting-edge computer research was taking place.

But it was the perspective he gained from deep immersion in real-time processing that put him head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries.

Consider for a moment the immense potential that is lost year after year, simply because children with similar abilities and passions are not afforded opportunities for immersion along with the deep insights this type of experience typically affords.

And that brings me back to 4-H.

We hear talk of youth development groups such as 4-H becoming passé.   Quite the contrary: Grassroots youth programs have a unique potential to provide children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with opportunities that will secure lifetime success and, in rare cases, achievements on par with those of Bill Gates.

And considering the quantum scientific and technological advances that followed his immersion experience, aren’t these investments worth the cost?

Dignity Lost, Dignity Regained?

Years ago, an elderly lady shared with me a photocopy of a card carried around in the wallet of her long deceased uncle, Luther Duncan, a 4-H pioneer, Alabama Extension administrator, and Auburn University president.  The card essentially functioned as a wallet-sized catechism —a summary of the ethical standards that Duncan held most dearly. 

The frayed edges and smudged ink apparent even in the photocopy testified to the seriousness with which Duncan regarded these ethical standards. I imagined him perusing them time and again on those long train rides between 4-H meetings and farm demonstrations.

For me, this frayed card attested to the intense preoccupation, if not outright obsession, many 19th and early 20th century Americans had not only with high ethical standards but also with another attribute they closely associated with ethics — personal dignity.  In the view of most, acquiring these attributes involved a lifetime commitment and encompassed every bit as much of an inward as an outward transformation.

My parents were not born in the 19th century, though they could have just as well been.  They were sticklers for everything from posture and reasonably refined manners to grammar and diction. They never failed to note the slightest breaches of etiquette or moral lapses.   My father, who was born in abject poverty but went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, solemnly informed my brother and me that neither of us would drag the Langcuster fortunes back into the squalor out of which he had struggled.

What I hated then with a passion — those straight talks and dire warnings — I recall today with a sense of profound and abiding gratitude, though I confess that I remain a work in progress.

From an early age, I suppose I intuitively understood that ethics and dignity went hand in hand.  Likewise, in dealing with others, I tended to assume that one attribute was accompanied by the other: One who comported oneself with dignity likely evinced high ethical standards and vice versa.

I suppose my upbringing accounts for why I read and zealously forwarded to friends David Brooks’s recent op-ed: “In Search of Dignity.”

While observing that Americans continue to recognize and appreciate dignity where it can still be found — in public icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Tom Hanks, Ronald Reagan and, it now appears, Barack Obama — Brooks nonetheless believes that any objective understanding of dignity has been lost.

What are the factors that account for this loss?

First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

If dignity has been lost, how can it be regained?  More important, how do we reacquire something so intangible — something, much like humus, which is acquired only after long passages of time and only through the most careful and assiduous nourishment and stewardship?

Are you listening, 4-H?