Tag Archives: land-grant university

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 Cooperative Extension Educator as Sentinel

A Journal of Extension article by three land-grant university faculty members has caused something of a stir within Cooperative Extension circles — and well it should.

The three expressed the fear — an entirely justified fear — that Extension is going the way of the Pony Express.   The Pony Express once represented the cutting edge of mail delivery until the advent of the telegraph and the construction of the transcontinental railroad changed all that.

Likewise, in its halcyon days, the U.S. Cooperative Extension system served as cutting-edge educational model for developed and developing nations alike.  Much like the Pony Express, though, the Extension model is becoming increasingly irrelevant due to a number of factors — especially the rising levels of education within most of its client base.

This, in turn, has led to flagging confidence in Extension’s value among federal, state and local funding sources.  

What is to be done? 

Cooperative Extension, they contend, is badly in need of redefinition — an effort that may result in the loss of some of Extension’s traditional client base, though the authors stress that Extension must retain its traditional approach among its existing client base even as it presses ahead with efforts to reach new audiences.

Marketing, they contend is equally critical.  One of the first steps should be an extensive survey to determine Extension’s “modern-day niche.”

Finally, the authors stress the importance of “rigorous communication and education.”  Extension pioneered many communications technologies throughout its history, but its next challenge lies in developing programs and products grounded in current communication and educational theory.

Likewise, Extension educators steeped in subject-matter expertise nonetheless possess inadequate training in education, communication, psychology and other fields that that are paramount to the success of the Extension mission, they contend.

Needless to say, all of these concerns are valid, but I think they are overlooking the two most critical factors: The rise of globalization and, equally significant, the advent of social media, both of which will directly affect the way Extension educators undertake their mission in the future.

Simply put, Extension educators are operating within an entirely new environment, which author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman aptly describes as the flat world.

On this radically “flattened” landscape, change is literally occurring at the speed of light as knowledge is rapidly moved across oceans and entire contents through emerging Web-based media. 

These changes will require nothing less than the redefinition of the Cooperative Extension educator — how he/she interacts with clientele within the flat world environment.

Extension educators already are being forced to move beyond their traditional venues of face-to-face contacts and print and broadcast media — 20th century methods of knowledge transfer.   But the changes will be even more far reaching.

A growing number of Extension educators are beginning to realize that they no longer can afford to be mere knowledge providers — a task for which Google and other search engines are now fully equipped.  Rather they must strive to become value-added knowledge providers —sentinels, in manner of speaking.

I draw my lessons from the blogging phenomenon that has unfolded within the last decade.  

As a political junkie of sorts, one of the first Websites sites I visit every mornng is Andrew Sullivan’s Weblog, The Daily Dish. Sullivan has succeeded spectacularly as a blogger through the role he serves as a sentinel.   He informs readers and endows them with a deep historical and philosophical understanding of the passing political scene but he also does something more:  He provides his readers with a reasonable expectation of what may happen next — an understanding of the political and cultural events that lie just beyond the horizon.

Simply put, along with knowledge,  he strives to provide the deepest possible context.  And by providing unusually deep context, Sullivan has succeeded not only as a knowledge provider but also as a value-added knowledge provider.

Cooperative Extension educators are faced with the same challenges.  To compete successfully within this flat world, we must become sentinels — value-added knowledge providers who are fully equipped to use social media to empower our clients not only with knowledge but also knowledge within an especially deep context.

To their credit, a growing number of Extension educators already are fully aware of what is at stake. In my state, for example, our precision farming team already has adopted this new sentinel model successfully.  They are viewed among their clients as cutting-edge sources of knowledge about precision farming.  But they are also are taking the next critical step, learning how to use social media and other Web-based technologies to provide their clients with daily insights and commentary about emerging technologies and practices. 

They are becoming value-added knowledge providers, because they know that within this increasingly flat world, their future — and the future of the Cooperative Extension mission — depends on it.