Tag Archives: Creative Sedition

Extension’s Critical Need for Public Intellectuals

Anthony Giddens

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, one of many public intellectuals throughout the world adding their perspectives to contemporary issues of the day.

As some you undoubtedly have perceived by now, one of the focuses of this weblog is to underscore the need for our becoming different — to find ways to distinguish ourselves from our competitors, from other knowledge providers.

The thoughts I shared yesterday regarding Extension’s transformation from technological crusader to conciliator take me back to a piece I wrote last year about our acute need to cultivate a national corps of public intellectuals.

Yes, I know, it sounds a bit grandiose, but I’m more convinced than ever of this burning need. Indeed, as I see it, cultivating a committed nationwide corps of articulate, perceptive public intellectuals is a key step in our organizational transformation.  It offers an immense opportunity for creative sedition — acting within our current category while playing beyond stereotype.

What exactly is a public intellectual?  Traditionally speaking, one who deals with ideas and knowledge within the context of public discourse, usually within a mass media context, though with the advent of the Web, this role has evolved somewhat.

We need more of these people, especially within farming.  The transition from the current scientific farming model to one that combines elements of the current model with sustainable practices is destined to be a difficult one.

As I stressed yesterday, grassroots Extension educators have a huge role to fill helping producers undertake this transition — to put it another way, helping conciliate these somewhat conflicting visions. They inevitably will be borrowing a page or two from our horticultural educators, who are already dealing with a similar challenge helping their growers weigh and balance these issues.

However, this issue is playing out within a wider public context too.

Earlier this week, a New York Times digital and pop culture columnist Virginia Heffernan offered a lighthearted account of the 50-year feud between those standpat food traditionalists, commonly known as foodies, and the food techies who eagerly abandoned traditional food preparation techniques for the modern conveniences of life — can openers, microwaves and grocery store rotisseries.

It’s a lighthearted treatment or a comparatively light subject, yes, but this 50-year feud closely resembles what is taking place between the proponents and detractors of the conventional scientific farming practices.  It is a feud ensuing throughout wider avenues of public discourse between those who harbor misgivings about the implications of technology and those who, despite a few misgivings, are largely convinced that technology will lead us to a better ways of living and working.

Issues such as these are screaming to be put into perspective. Who but Extension educators are better equipped to put these issues into context?

Our history has uniquely equipped us for such a task.  We have amassed an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the great strengths of Cooperative Extension, though, to be sure, one that has not been cultivated to its fullest potential.

As our rule evolves from that of technological crusader to that of technological conciliator, the need for this corps of public intellectuals will become even more critical.

To repeat my earlier suggestion, we need to start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We should nurture their talents and inspire them to become public intellectuals in the fullest measure of that term — people who can identity as well as capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about the food-and-fiber issues that lie just ahead of us.

They must learn to become effective social media users, op-ed writers and trained speakers thoroughly equipped to engage clients and stakeholders in a variety of public contexts.

Yes, we need to be cultivating a corps of public intellectuals and promoting them with the same zeal with which Division I universities promote their star athletes.

Our organizational future will depend on them.

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Extension’s Opportunity for Creative Sedition

Cirque Du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil is credited by many, including Harvard Business School's Youngme Moon, with reinventing the concept of circus.

In her brilliantly insightful book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon recalls the teacher’s advice regarding what she should send with her children on their first day of kindergarten: a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or toy — any familiar object that blunted the effects of the newness and uncertainty that awaited them.

This advice ended up serendipitously reinforcing what later provided to be a critical insight of her book.

During those occasional disruptive periods of life, we prefer the newness of our altered circumstances to be anchored as much as possible by familiarity — sameness — but in our day-to-day living, we like our monochrome sameness to be occasionally embellished by flashes of newness.

Indeed, Moon contends this passion for a sameness sporadically punctuated by eruptions of newness is an innate desire that defines the sum of human existence.

Therein lies a critical branding lesson: The most successful enterprises in the future will be those who produce the optimal amount of difference by  striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

I finished the last page of Moon’s book more convinced than ever that striking this balance will be the central preoccupation for public and private entities in the 21st century.

Extension will prove no exception — something of which I was reminded last night reading an especially incisive post on the Cooperative Extension System Facebook page.

As the poster observes, funding shortfalls are already forcing Extension to do more with less, namely less staff.  Sooner or later, these shortfalls, along with other social and economic factors, will force Extension to reevaluate what it does — or, more specifically, what it can and can no longer do. In other words, it will call for the formulation of a new organizational focus.

That raises the obvious question: What should that focus be?

For some, it’s a scary question.  For others, including yours truly, it’s a question that conceivably presents us with one of the greatest opportunities in our history — at least, if we view this challenge not as the severing of a limb but as an opportunity not only to redefine ourselves but also to differentiate ourselves in a meaningful and lasting way from our competitors.

As I see it, this challenge — redefining and differentiating ourselves — brings us back to what Moon perceives as the sum of human existence: striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

She cites a number of private companies that have risen to this challenge and succeeded spectacularly.  One especially noteworthy example is Cirque du Soleil.

As Moon and countless others contend, Cirque du Soleil has redefined the whole concept of circus.  As counterintuitive as it seems, they have succeeded by eliminating much of what has traditionally been associated with circuses — dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters — and substituting something entirely new, namely elements of dance, theater, music and gymnastics.

Among some critics, Cirque du Soleil, by eliminating the usual features of circuses, no longer qualifies as a circus.  But as Moon contends, that’s precisely the basis of Cirque du Soleil’s genius: there’s a certain “seditious advantage” in positioning oneself as a circus while venturing beyond stereotype.

I think the times present Cooperative Extension with a similar opportunity for sedition — creative sedition — an opportunity to position itself within the category of government/university outreach agency while venturing beyond stereotype.

This raises the inevitable question: What form should this transformation take?

How much newness do we introduce? How much sameness do we retain?

Here’s another way of considering it: What Extension versions of dance, theater, music and gymnastics will we employ to replace the dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters?

Rest assured that I’m formulating some answers to these questions that I’ll share in an upcoming post.