Tag Archives: FFA

We Need a Scientific Counterrevolution in the United States — and 4-H and FFA Should Lead the Way

I’ve stated more than once what I consider as one of the greatest long-term threats facing American prosperity:  The unwillingness of America’s most talented and educated young people to pursue the sorts of practical fields that propelled this country to the pinnacle of technological leadership in the 20th century.

In his most recent column, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman outlined how this practical knowledge deficit is seriously undermining our competitive standing among other advanced nations:

“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says [former MIT President Charles M.] Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.

I’ve outlined more than once in this forum the role that 4-H and FFA could play in helping spark a counterrevolution of practical scientific knowledge among many of this nation’s best and brightest.  No two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to help restore these values to a preeminent place in American life.

Are they listening?

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.