Tag Archives: David Brooks

The Return of the Hick Factor and It’s Implications for Extension

Part of our nation’s greatness stems from the fact that it has never erected a high wall of separation between so-called academic and practical knowledge.

Auburn, Clemson, Michigan State, Purdue and Texas A&M universities, all of which started out as agricultural and mechanical institutions but now command topflight rank along with their state-chartered counterparts, are a testament to this longstanding American openness to practical knowledge.

Our British cousins held a similarly high regard for practical knowledge, which perhaps accounts in large measure for why they rose in the 19th century to become the world’s first global economic superpower.

Quoting economic historian Joel Mokyr, New York Times columnist and author David Brooks maintains that Britain’s and later America’s phenomenal economic achievement stemmed from a changed state of mind.

“Because of a series of cultural shifts, technicians started taking scientific knowledge and putting it to practical use.”


To put it another way, Britain and its cultural and political offshoot, the United States, developed a respect, if not passion, for practical knowledge.

Other advanced nations initially did not hold practical knowledge in such high regard, including Germany. Peter Watson, writing in his superb history of intellectual thought, Thought: A History of Ideas from Fire to Freud, described the prevailing disdain for practical knowledge among the educated German upper and middle classes.

Watson cites as a prime example the ambiguous public standing of Max Planck, the physicist who discovered the quantum, the idea that energy comes in small packets, or quanta.

“Despite the fact that his discovery rates as one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, in Planck’s own family, the humanities were considered a superior form of knowledge to science,” Watson writes. “His cousin, the historian Max Lenz, would jokingly pun that scientists (Naturforsher) were in reality foresters (Naturforster) – or, as he would say, hicks.”

In an earlier piece, I referred to such historical bias against practical knowledge as the “hick factor.”

Ultimately, as Brooks writes, upper-class Britons followed suit, as “the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce, tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.”

It appears that this hick factor, prevalent among 19th century elite Germans and, later, British elites, is gaining a toehold among American in the 21st century – and not just among elites.

“The shift is evident at all levels of society,” Brooks writes. “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.”

That raises a disturbing question: Within this rapidly evolving social context, what are the implications for Cooperative Extension and the land-grant system in general?

These land-grant institutions helped elevate knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Through tens of thousands of hours of classroom instruction, applied research on thousand acres of cropland, and countless field tours, this system played an indispensable role generating and purveying much of the practical knowledge on which the modern farming system is based.

Equally important, what role, if any, should Extension and other land-grant institution serve in helping restore industry and technical expertise – practical knowledge – to a preeminent place in American life?


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.

Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming

Okay, I’m convinced: The biggest issue for Extension for the foreseeable future will be sustainability.  The recent columns of three New York Times writers helped close the sale for me.

Here’s why:

First, persistent concerns about the carbon threat.  Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that global warming is real.  But then again, I’m no expert.  And the fact remains that a majority of this nation’s policymakers and pundits believe it to be true.  Thomas Friedman perceives it not only as a real but even as an immediate threat, especially considering the possibility that

… the next emitted carbon molecule will tip over some ecosystem and trigger a nonlinear event — like melting the Siberian tundra and releasing all its methane, or drying up the Amazon or melt all the sea ice in the North Pole in summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

And there is the added threat of chronic debt and especially of its long-term implications for America’s future.  As Friedman observes,

…One need only look at today’s record-setting price of gold, in a period of deflation, to know that a lot of people are worried that our next dollar of debt— unbalanced by spending cuts or new tax revenues — will trigger a nonlinear move out of the dollar and torpedo the U.S. economy.

The worst-case scenario: A future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to make the public investments necessary to secure the future of younger generations of Americans.

If these factors have not yet bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what Roger Cohen describes as a “different mental place.”

They’re paying down debt. They’re not hiring. They’ve gotten reacquainted with risk. They’re going to have to survive without Gourmet magazine.

And in the future, this will force Americans, whether they live in red or blue states, to put aside obsolescent cultural warfare and to embark on what David Brooks describes as a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”

Indeed, to an increasing degree, the elites as well as ordinary people fear that humanity is dealing with an ailing economic model that may even be teetering on collapse.

Add to that the concerns about the appalling state of American health, which to an increasing degree are ascribed to the current U.S. farm production system.  But there is an even bigger sustainability issue associated with health: The growing strains within the U.S. medical system that inevitably will force a greater emphasis on preventive health care – sustainability by any other name.

Simply put, for a variety of reasons, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word again: sustainability.

Some elites and ordinary people alike are more disposed to this term than ever before.

Sustainability affords Cooperative Extension the opportunity to burnish our image, demonstrating to our clients and stakeholders how we will play an integral role helping build new production systems that factor in growing economic and environmental concerns.  As one of my Extension colleagues pointed out recently, we played a major role in building the so-called factory farming system.  Now we must demonstrate how we are helping people move toward production systems that are more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability also empowers us in another way: It presents us with a golden opportunity to undertake one of the most important challenges of this century: to close the circle, showing how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we help the planet by doing everything from recycling to adopting greener production systems, but we also help humanity – and, ultimately, our strained medical system — by adopting sustainable lifestyles that emphasize prevention.

Yes, I know, we’ve been promoting health lifestyles for years, but now the stars are aligned in a way they have never been before.

While I’ll confess to some bias, I believe no other organization is better equipped than Cooperative Extenison to educate people about what is undoubtedly the most important challenge of  the 21st century— building systems that will sustain our planet as well as our personal well-being.

 Yes, sustainability is the future of Cooperative Extension.

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?