We Cooperative Extension professionals have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, many of us, especially the younger ones, are not fully apprised of our history and the role it can and should serve in helping us understand where we have been and, most important, where we should be going.
That raises an important question: What should constitute this grand Extension narrative?
I’ve formulated a few initial thoughts.
First, Extension educators and professionals should develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has served in advancing practical knowledge.
To a significant degree, Americans put practical knowledge on the map — a considerable feat in its own right. Not too long ago, the humanities were regarded, especially by Europeans, as the sole hallmarks of learning and culture, even as practical sciences, such as chemistry or forestry, were derided as “hick” knowledge.
Cooperative Extension educators played a major role in elevating practical knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.
Yet, we accomplished something even more significant: We added value to practical knowledge. We transformed it into working knowledge by showing ordinary people how to make use of it to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods. By improving their quality of life, we also empowered them.
Simply put, working knowledge is value-added knowledge that enables our clients to improve their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.
It’s a form of practical knowledge that has been expressed many times and in many ways throughout our history. Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act establishing formal Cooperative Extension programs, the working knowledge concept was embodied early forerunners of Extension work — in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration projects and in Booker T. Washington’s farm demonstration wagons.
As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us with much greater organizational clarity.
Likewise, it is a concept that we Extension educators should closely bear in mind as we strive to distinguish ourselves from among the legions of other knowledge providers on this increasingly flat world — a world that now includes nonhuman knowledge providers in the form of search engines.
We can’t compete with search engines. On the other hand, we still offer something that search engines lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge. We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.
This working knowledge concept also positions us in another unique way.
Too an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.
Isn’t working knowledge, the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the last century, a forerunner of this approach? Equally important, doesn’t this longstanding experience with working knowledge uniquely equip us for the future?
I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes — yet another reason why I believe the working knowledge concept should form the bedrock of the Cooperative Extension narrative.
Dialogue and Empowerment
Finally, I believe this unique approach to working knowledge puts us in another especially advantageous position.
Over the last few decades, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.
Consequently, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the federal or state level, is passé. This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages individuals and groups to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.
Working knowledge should play an integral part in this approach.
This change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase distinctive working knowledge approach.
For the sake of our future, emphasizing this unique Extension experience and facility with working knowledge as well as the dialogue and empowerment that goes with it should comprise an integral part of our grand narrative.