Tag Archives: Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862

Cooperative Extension’s Axial Principle

Oklahoma State University Extension Agent with client

An Oklahoma State University Extension agent providing a client with working knowledge.

The question has been posed to me countless times throughout my career, one that is typically phrased this way: “Just what is Cooperative Extension?”

The whole concept of Cooperative Extension baffles most people. As I’ve pointed out a time or two, relating this concept to novices is as challenging as explaining all the complexities and nuances of the British Commonwealth.

As realities go, this is not good, especially considering the densely crowed, flattened information landscape on which we Extension professionals operate today.  Cooperative Extension’s murky image was luxury we perhaps could afford throughout much of the 20th century, when we occupied a much more conspicuous place within the American intellectual, cultural and public policy landscape.  Today, such murkiness is crushing burden that poses a genuine threat to our survival—precisely why I’ve argued more than once in this forum that the times are calling on use to go axial.  By axial, I mean that we Extension professionals are being challenged as never before to define what lies at the core of our being — to put it another way, to identify those attributes that constitute the essence of who we are and what we do.

Rest assured, though, that simply settling on a definition isn’t enough.  We’ve also got to communicate this definition to our diverse audiences as cogently and effectively as possible — not only to our external audiences but also to our employees.  (And rest assured that many of our employees struggle almost as much with our murky image as our clients and stakeholders do.)

Actually, I don’t think that identifying these core attributes is as hard as many people imagine it to be.

While some of my colleagues may write me off as delusional, I’m more convinced than ever that the essence of Cooperative Extension work can be expressed in this simple term: working knowledge.

Working knowledge is what Cooperative Extension is about — what it’s always been about — providing people with practical, beneficial knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in all facets of their lives, whether this happens to be at home or work.

This axial principal of Cooperative Extension, which has been employed to serve people from many different races and backgrounds in every corner of the planet, started out a preoccupation of farmers in frontier America — farmers who were seeking working knowledge to help them farm more effectively and profitably.

The perennial question remained how — how to disseminate knowledge to the widest number of farmers at a time when the farming population was growing and spreading rapidly across a vast continent.

Farmers’ meetings and institutes, the Morrill Act of 1862, Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots, Booker T. Washington’s Movable School, corn and tomato clubs  — all of these efforts and many more have essentially comprised a running dialogue about the most effective ways to put practical, beneficial knowledge to work on behalf of farmers where they live and work.

All of these efforts coalesced into the Cooperative Extension movement, which was formalized with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Through this legislation, states were provided matching funds to establish statewide networks of county farm educators, each network functioning under the aegis of its state land-grant college, each the byproduct of an earlier national effort to provide farmers with working knowledge: The Morrill Act of 1862.

Simply put, passage of the Smith-Lever Act marked the culmination of a century-long movement that from its beginning sought to impart working knowledge to farmers.

As it turned out, the movement didn’t stop with farming: It underwent further refinement and adaptation.  Ultimately the working knowledge concept was re-engineered to address the needs of many people from many walks of life with many diverse needs.

In time, it developed into one of the most grassroots educational movements in history, emulated the world over.

Working knowledge: that, as I see it, is the axial principle of Cooperative Extension, the essence of who we are and what we do.

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Post-Morrill America — and What It Means for Extension

Justin Smith Morrill, father of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, scarcely envisioned the technological world that would be secured largely through his efforts.The thought just occurred to me yesterday — and a sobering one at that: We Americans have all been Morillized.

As a matter of fact, all of us have been Morrillized to such a degree that we now live in a post-Morrill nation.

Welcome to post-Morrill America.

If you recall your history, the purpose of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was to improve the standard of living in the various American states and, ultimately, the nation as a whole by providing the laboring classes with education in the practical arts.

I would contend that Justin Smith Morrill’s vision has exceeded beyond measure and in ways he scarcely considered at the time.   To be sure, not everyone has ascended to the ranks of the middle class. Not everyone possesses a college education.  Even so, the highly technological world that to a significant degree grew out of the Morrill Act has placed all of these practical arts at the fingertips of virtually every individual in this nation.

One of my colleagues, NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, superbly illustrated this recently in his departmental weblog, “The Winnowing Oar,” with a link and accompanying comments about a 45-year-old paper mill worker named Frank Kovacs, who once dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist.  Taxing college math courses thwarted this dream, but this didn’t stop Kovacs from building his own planetarium in his free time — what he describes to visitors as the “world’s largest rolling, mechanical, globe planetarium.”

Kovacs is now an educator with his own self-constructed learning facility.

Bob is right to point out the immense significance behind one of Kovacs’s statements: “To be a planetarium director you need college, but if you build your own, you can run it!”

If any statement speaks volumes about the post-Morrill world in which we live, it is that one.  In terms of knowledge empowerment, people no longer have to wait on someone else.

As Bob so aptly describes it, “Stepping on a college campus or attending a workshop are not the only ways to pursue an education.”

Frank Kovacs has demonstrated that fact.

In a manner of speaking, all this Morrillizing has helped create a technological order in which people are now fully capable of empowering themselves.

I contend that this reality presents Extension with a fascinating question: What is our purpose in a post-Morrill world?

We live in a drastically altered knowledge landscape, one that is flat. To a significant degree, the flat world is one that Justin Smith Morrill made.

We should give him his due — for that matter, we should give ourselves ample credit for the indispensable role we served in Morrillizing America.

However, post-Morrillization presents us with a new set of challenge perhaps best expressed by this question: Where do we go from here?

We should start by reflecting on the most obvious effect of post-Morrillization: Americans are now fully equipped to empower themselves.

Yes, we remain an agency of empowerment but not in the way we were in the past.  Back to that rather unwieldy neologism: contextualizer.   In the future, we will empower people by providing them with deeper, more enriched learning contexts.  In time, we will learn that these contexts are best secured within social networks — networks that are open, responsive and dense enough to ensure the most optimal levels of enrichment.

We must construct nothing less than a new outreach model — in a manner of speaking, a post-Morrill outreach model.

Granted, we have our work cut out for us — or, as farmers would say, we have a “long row to hoe.”

Even so, I, for one, am convinced that our history and experiences uniquely equip us to undertake this transformation.

One thing is certain: Despite these challenges, post-Morrillization is no cause for demoralization.