Tag Archives: budget cuts

Seed Corn for the Future

Yes, I’m always talking about the value current events serve in driving home valuable lessons and insights to Extension educators.

4-H Clover

4-H: One of America's Most Indispensable Youth Programs

New York Times columnist David Brooks drives home yet another valuable lesson in today’s column.

Folklore abounds with tales of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times.

As Brooks soberly observes, this era of fiscal austerity is one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: youth.

…legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable. In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries. In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.

Brooks is spot on again. We need to be underscoring to policy makers why our own educational outreach program, 4-H, is anything but a frivolous program — why it continues to play an essential role in fostering the skills that keep kids engaged and in school.

I’ve been impressed within the past few days with how several Extension professionals throughout the country are engaging in old-fashioned story-telling, focusing on tangible examples of kids whose 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on their staying in school, going onto college and pursuing a lifetime passion they acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

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 old-fashioned bourgeois values that have distinguished it in the past: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only three.

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 — and, for that matter, its sister organization, FFA — 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 rule 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.

Research has revealed 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 lesson 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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Extension’s Future in an Age of Austerity

Speaking as an Extension professional, I think there are two ways of looking at the future, one deeply pessimistic, the other guardedly optimistic.

Rockwell's county agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Painting of a County Agent at Work

Despite my genetic propensity for pessimism, I remain optimistic, albeit guardedly.  Yes, we live in an age of fiscal austerity, and, yes, the way this austerity ultimately plays out raises several disturbing questions about the prospects for our long-term organizational survival.

Even so, as I’ve mentioned before, I think the sheer scope of austerity-related policies that emerge from congressional and state legislative wrangling over the next decade will only underscore the value of Cooperative Extension.

These austerity measures undoubtedly will exert an immense influence not only on the American economy but also on the U.S. political and public policy agendas.  Just how much was reflected in a recent New Republic column.

New Republic correspondent Thomas Edsall cites Congressional Budget Office estimates, which reveal that without major budgetary reform, debt is expected to triple by 2035, exceeding 135 percent of GDP.  As Edsall observes, the sheer magnitude of federal debt underscores the difficulties that we and future generations face.

If we were careful planners—and, of course, we’re not—we would begin by saving about 5 percent of GDP each year. Next year, for example, we’d have to make tax increases and spending cuts add up to about $700 billion. Over time, the total costs would prove immense: raising everyone’s tax bill by at least 25 percent (and probably a lot more than that) or eliminating about 20 percent of the federal budget (the approximate current size of Social Security, for example).

My personal impression: We Extension professionals will endure immense budgetary hardship over the next few years.  We won’t emerge from this unscathed.  But we WILL survive. 

Why? Because Cooperative Extension is far better equipped than other public entities to operate on the drastically altered public policy landscape that ultimately emerges.  

What will be the most important factor accounting for this survival? Our longstanding organizational emphasis on dialogue and empowerment as opposed to the top/down bureaucratic approach that once underscored public policy.

The public policy agenda that emerges from all this fiscal wrangling will place considerably greater emphasis on personal empowerment, namely on the role citizens must serve as active partners in social change and advancement.

That is why I think public policymakers at all levels of government ultimately will acquire a newfound appreciation for our unique assets.

Yes, there are some things we will have to do differently, and, yes, new technology, notably social media, will play an integral part in the leaner organizational structure that ultimately emerges. But the Cooperative Extension that emerges will be a considerably leaner organization better equipped to help Americans through the myriad challenges associated with this era of material limitations and reduced expectations.

A Clarion Call for Revolutionary Thinking

If any recent writing constitutes a clarion call for social media adoption by Extension professionals, it is the article that appeared Dec. 13, 2009 in the Chronicle of Higher Education outlining the severe Cooperative Extension budgetary cutbacks throughout the nation.

In an especially telling observation, Oregon State University Extension administrator A. Scott Reed, stressed that the cuts move Extension beyond “evolutionary change” and toward “revolutionary change.”

Equally telling are the recent changes within the nation’s oldest Extension program, Iowa State University Cooperative Extension, which decided to replace its 100 county-based districts with 20 regional centers.

“The choice we had to make was to lessen the administrative structure if we wanted to save programs,” said Jack M. Payne, vice president for Extension and Outreach. “But it takes away our high-touch face-to-face service we offered.”

If this wasn’t troubling enough, what I found especially troubling was the utter absence of any discussion of social media adoption.   The only statement that even came close dealt with state Extension programs’ increasing reliance on Web site and toll-free help lines.

To a degree, web sites and toll-free lines will fill the breach created by these funding shortfalls, but I’m more convinced than ever that social media adoption will play the most critical role among Extension professionals in the future.

How?  Primarily by leveraging our depleted resources, providing the level of high-touch contact — engagement— that Web sites and toll-free lines woefully lack.

Revolutionary changes call for revolutionary measures — nothing short of a paradigm shift.  Let’s not forget that by its nature, Extension is a high-touch, engaged outreach organization.  High-touch outreach is as integral to our mission as handshaking is among politicians. If money shortfalls are steadily eroding our ability to maintain face-to-face interaction with our clients, then social media offers the only other viable option.

In many ways, social media actually offers Extension an opportunity to enhance the levels of engagement with its audiences.

Make no mistake about it, though: The mere adoption of social media techniques will not go far enough.  It must be accompanied by a new set of values — 21st century values that will not seem all that unfamiliar to most Extension professionals.

Understanding and trust must comprise an integral component of these values.

Extension professionals also must become more adept at working across disciplinary lines, not only helping their clients grasp complex information but also showing them the implications of this new learning within a wider context. Likewise, professionals must learn how to work more adeptly across organizational lines, using social media to enhance working relationships with public and private partners.

The high-touch, enriched relationship with clients afforded by social media must also be anchored in a deep passion for new ways of thinking, coupled with a desire to employ even newer technologies to enhance this high-touch effect.

Extension professionals will also learn to view their diverse audiences less as clients and more as collaborators, fully aware that to an increasing degree, knowledge products will be created and altered by peers and clients alike.

Yes, Reed is right: Evolutionary change is a luxury in these lean times, one that Cooperative Extension can no longer afford.

Revolutionary times require revolutionary thinking — the reason why social media adoption should be at the top of the Extension agenda.