Tag Archives: David Brooks

Brooks on the “New Humanism”

We are at the cusp of a revolution in consciousness, argues author and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

This revolution could be summed in roughly as “David Hume was right: the British Enlightenment trumps its French counterpart.” Essentially, what we’ve learned is that our emotions count for much more than we ever imagined – insight that holds major implications not only for us as individuals but as Extension professionals.  Problem-solving is not just about bringing rational thought to bear on a problem.  As Hume contended, emotion informs rationality.  Even more significant, these two sides of human nature are inextricably linked.

Brooks’s TED lecture is informative, inspiring and even a little sublime, as corny as this sounds.  One caveat, though: viewing this is no substitute for reading his book “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.”

As I said, the implications for Cooperative Extension work are profound.

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4-H as Seed Corn

4-H'ers raising flag at the Alabama 4-H Youth Development Center, Coumbiana, Alabama

Following is a significantly revised rework of a piece I uploaded a couple of weeks ago about 4-H serving as vital seed corn for the future.

If you happen to be an Extension educator, please feel free to copy and use the material freely in newspaper columns, social media outreach and other measures aimed at heightening public awareness of the value of Extension programming.

Seed Corn for the Future

Folklore abounds with accounts of people yielding to the temptation of eating seed corn during unusually lean times, with predictably disastrous results.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks observed recently, this era of budget cutting appears to be one such time.  Many policy makers are threatening to consume precious seed corn — wealth better invested in the human crop of the future: young people.

“In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries,” Brooks writes. “In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.”

Add 4-H to that list. For more than a century, 4-H has fostered skills that not only keep kids in school but also busily and happily engaged in learning.

In response to impending and especially stringent federal budget cuts, Cooperative Extension professionals all over the country have been relating some of the tangible ways 4-H involvement has had a direct bearing on kids staying in school, going to college and pursuing lifetime passions acquired through the informal, hands-on learning associated with 4-H.

Yes, 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 traits that have long distinguished it: self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility, to name only a few.

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 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 role 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.

“If we’re trapped within the walls of a learning environment, reading, writing and arithmetic don’t spawn the creativity to go out and do great things,” says Wes Laird, an Opp, Ala. attorney and 4-H alumnus who has spent his legal career defending the economically disadvantaged.

Laird lauds his 4-H involvement as his social networking experience that enabled him to see beyond his rural Alabama hometown to the larger world beyond.

“Extracurricular activities that lie beyond classroom walls and that allow freedom of mind are crucial for excelling in any field,” Laird says.

In fact, research has confirmed 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 lessons 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.

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.

Wanted: A John Wesley Legion for Cooperative Extension

John Wesley, Anglican Innovator, Founder of Methodism

John Wesley, Anglican Innovator, Methodist Founder

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Methodist history grasps one of the great ironies of that movement: that it started out not so much a movement of its own but as an attempt to reform the Church of England — namely, to make it relevant to working-class English men and women coping with the effects of industrialization and struggling to understand their place in it.

As a matter of fact, to this Methodist, the Wesleyan movement has always borne a remarkable resemblance to our movement.  After all, what was the purpose of land-grant institutions and the Cooperative Extension undertaking that followed other than an attempt to equip farmers and working-class men and women with the mental resources and skills to weather the effects of industrialization occurring around them?

I’ll even take this comparison one step further: Much as 18th century Anglicanism was in need of a makeover, so is 21st century Cooperative Extension.  Yes, we need not one John Wesley but a legion of them: men and women who can help transform our movement into the relevant, post-industrial knowledge organization that it must become.

What exactly would such a transformation entail? For a quick overview, I heartily recommend David Brooks’s latest column: “The Crossroads Nation.”

Just as agriculture was the major activity a half millennium ago and industrial production was the preoccupation of the last century, “innovation and creativity will be the engines of economic growth” in the 21st century, he contends.

The most successful societies of the world — and Brooks is fully confident that the United States, despite its current challenges, will remain the world’s most successful society — will provide aspiring innovators with the social context they require to realize their fullest potential.

This kind of achievement doesn’t occur within a vacuum — some solitary genius laboring alone in a laboratory or library.  There will be a measure of that, yes.  But social collaboration — networks — will comprise the most essential component. As Brooks stresses, creators and innovators will require teamwork every bit as much as solitary inspiration and discovery.

“The main point in this composite story is that creativity is not a solitary process,” Brooks writes. “It happens within networks. It happens when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.”

People ask me why I, a confirmed pessimist, continue to express unbounded optimism about Cooperative Extension despite the seemingly endless budget cuts, downsizing and demoralization that inevitably follows. 

There is one reason: I am fully convinced that our history — our longstanding acquaintance with collaborative knowledge — fully and uniquely equips us to capitalize on what is occurring all around us.

We Cooperative Extension professionals are fortunate to work in the nation that Brooks believes is still the best equipped to serve as the world’s creative hub. We Americans speak the global language, we remain a high-trust society, we’re a universal nation with contacts all over the world, and we still possess a high degree of social trust and openness — all prerequisites for the society that is emerging.

Likewise, we’re fortunate that the successful society that emerges in the 21st century will be ours, the one best equipped to provides hubs — junction points — for this immense global network. 

Yet, we have some immense advantages of our own: namely, an enormous potential to provide American society with a number of these critical junction points. 

Even so, fully seizing these opportunities will require an organizational makeover.

That is why we will need creators and innovators of our own — legions of them — people who can show us how we can draw on our historic strengths to complete our transformation into a fully networked knowledge organization, one that promotes both creativity and innovation.

We need a legion of John Wesleys.

Advice to the President, Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Two points David Brooks raised today in discussing President Obama’s political prospects following the mid-term elections not only made a deep impression on me but also raise major implications for the future of the nation and of Cooperative Extension.

In terms of the President’s emphasis on cultural values, Brooks offered this advice:

Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

From a public policy standpoint, he says the President will also have to stress the importance of restructuring in an era when growing numbers of Americans fear that the nation’s best years are behind it.

Companies like Ford cut wasteful spending while doubling down on productive investment. That’s exactly what the nation has to do over all. There have to be cuts, the president could say, in unaffordable pension commitments, in biofuel subsidies and useless tax breaks. But there also have to be investments in things that will produce a vibrant economy for our children: a simpler tax system with lower rates on investment; more scientific research; a giant effort to improve Hispanic graduation rates; medical courts to rationalize the malpractice system and so on.

It’s neither my intention to praise nor blame President Obama.  My priority as blogger is to identify current issues that have direct bearing on the movement I’ve come to love and cherish: Cooperative Extension.  And these two points have a direct bearing on Extension.

The cultural values of self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility have been critical to this nation’s long-term success.  4-H has played an indispensable role in propagating and instilling these values in five generations of American youth.

To put it another way, I believe that 4-H’s longstanding role — instilling young people with the skills they need to function in the real world — remains more than simply a quaint holdover from earlier decades.  This historical role remains no less critical — critical to the long-term survival of our society.  4-H educators and volunteers should make no bones about this fact.  They should proclaim it loudly, unapologetically and proudly.

Brooks’s second point about productive investment must also be taken to heart.  In historical terms, Cooperative Extension is one of this country’s most significant productive investments.  The role it served in rendering farming more efficient contributed directly to this nation’s reaching the pinnacle of world agricultural and industrial leadership in the 20th century.

Despite all this talk of Extension’s best years being behind us, we still have an essential niche to fill in terms of productive investment.

One of the greatest challenges this nation will face with the next few years is balancing sustainable practices with farm profitability and efficiency. If you doubt that, consider this quote from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by a huge increase in fertilizer use in Africa, the adoption of drip irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chickens and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep  (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between) — and a great deal of trade, not just because the mouths and the plants will not be in se same place, but also because trade encourages specialization in the best-yielding crops for any particular district.

Needless to say, the need for a “great deal of trade” inevitably will be accompanied by a great need for agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, animal scientists and agricultural economists — experts who are not only fully engaged in classrooms and laboratories but also in face-to-face interactions with producers who will  comprise the vanguard of this new green revolution.

Back to Brooks’s phrase: productive investment.  The demands of mid-century agriculture will require a colossally large productive investment, not only in terms of research but also in active engagement with producers.

That’s one of the reasons why I believe Cooperative Extension’s best years are ahead of it rather than behind it: We will soon be called upon again to make an enormous productive investment in this nation’s and the world’s future.

4-H and FFA: Vanguards of a Scientific Counterrevolution?

“If we don’t restore the manufacturing sector in this country, we’re scr*wed in the long run.”

Those were the blunt sentiments expressed last week by an industrial engineering professor and close friend summing up the future economic outlook of the United States barring a radical turnaround.

If any statement best underscores why I still believe passionately and unequivocally in the enduring value of 4-H and FFA, it’s is that one. 

Yes, I know that historically speaking these two youth organizations have been closely tied with agriculture rather than with the manufacturing base.  But their historical emphasis on practical knowledge and the critical thinking that accompanies it is the reason why I’m convinced these two organizations have an invaluable role play in the future as practical scientific vanguards.

Practical scientific vanguards? Yes, I know that sounds a little grandiose, if not slightly bizarre. But I’m serious. I believe our success as a nation depends on whether we reverse the trends that are moving us away from the traditional American emphasis on practical science and critical thinking.

Scottish Lessons

I was reminded of this yet again last week while finishing last chapter of Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” a book that chronicles the enormous Scottish contributions to modern thought and technological achievement.

Herman credits the Scots with fostering huge leaps in moral philosophy, history, economics and scientific and technological advances throughout the 18th century. Intellectual discussions throughout the civilized world were peppered with Scottish names such Hutcheson, Kames, Ferguson, Smith and Hume, Reid and Carlyle.

Medical training at Edinburgh University set the standard for the rest of the world, particularly the newly independent United States.  Similar standards were set in engineering, steelmaking, ship building, textiles and chemistry.

Yet, as the 19th century drew to a close, Scottish intellectual achievement began to wane.

Scotland’s brightest students abandoned Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen for Oxbridge.

By the close of the 19th century, Scottish businessmen, whose professional forebears had advanced printing and the book trade — not to mention renowned publications as the Edinburgh Literary Review — turned their energies to the tabloid press. 

Likewise, Scottish writers abandoned their interests in philosophy, political economy and history for escapist literature.

A growing Scottish preoccupation with conformity blocked innovation and creativity — a change that Herman ascribes to the disastrous results stemming from World War I battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, when Scottish generals, once vaunted for their independent-mindedness in addition to their courage and sense of honor, concentrated on means while losing sight of the ends.

A Lesson for Americans?

Could it be that American society is following the same course?  Is our longstanding reverence for practical science and critical thinking, which sparked similar scientific and technological advances throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, eroding?

The symptoms are all around us. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks bemoaned the degree to which U.S. young people, especially elite college graduates, have “drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.”

“The shift is evident at all levels of society, “Brooks writes. “First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.”

Yet another observation that left a deep impression last week was expressed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former Texas A&M University president, who stressed that American society is more self-aware and self-critical than any other in history.

“That doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of geniuses,” Gates said. “It just means — due, in no small part to a free press — that we recognize our problems faster than anybody else and move to correct them faster.”

Back to my premise: 4-H and FFA and the need for nothing less than a practical scientific counterrevolution. What two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to restore these values to a preeminent place in American life?

The Hick Factor: The Root Causes

Yesterday, inspired by a reading of one of David Brooks’s recent columns, I raised concerns that America was dealing with a growing national ambivalence about, if not disdain for, practical, as opposed to more abstract, forms of knowledge.

No doubt, the roots of this problem are complex.  While I’m not a social scientist, I suspect they stem from a combination of global economic factors as well as cultural and social trends unfolding in the United States.

Based on my own limited reading, I don’t think this problem will be addressed easily.  As a matter of fact, I think it will present an extraordinarily difficult challenge, not only for those of us in Cooperative Extension and other facets of the land-grant system but also for policymakers, entrepreneurs and other others who have a stake in preserving this nation’s longstanding emphasis on practical knowledge.

Perhaps the most telling example of this challenge in all of its complexity was shared recently by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who reported how these divisions were being played out in many of this nation’s leading college campuses.

Douthat cited a study by Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford of admissions policies at eight highly selective colleges and universities.

…while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances.

Of course, I’m not implying that this admissions trend reflects some conspiracy among elite colleges to undermine the value Americans have historically placed on practical knowledge.

Even so, if the products of two of this nation’s premier purveyors of practical knowledge, 4-H and FFA, are being denied admission to this nation’s leading colleges and universities and, ultimately, to the leading circles of influence and decision-making, what does this say about our prospects for restoring practical knowledge to a significant standing in American life?

Could this devaluing of practical knowledge also stem from the way elite colleges select applicants?

Writing in the June 1, 2008 issue of The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz, a product of Ivy League schooling, contends that elite universities are now selecting solely for analytical intelligence.   Yet, it seems to me — and I think David Brooks would agree — that practical knowledge, as an attempt to derive practical benefit from scientific discovery, requires as much creative as it does analytical intelligence and, consequently, tends to draw from both hemispheres of the brain.

Simply put, practical knowledge involves a combination of many different kinds of intelligence, with analytical intelligence occupying a prominent place within that combination.

Deresiewicz makes a similar observation.

The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic….But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.

Granted, many of the points I’ve outlined above amount to questions — and possibly ill-informed, baseless ones at that.

Even so, I discern an opportunity for groups such as 4-H and FFA, despite the bias directed at them in some elite quarters — an opportunity to rekindle an interest in, if not an enduring passion for, practical knowledge among our young people.